The 2000 United States presidential election was the first time since 1888 and the fourth time in US history in which the winning candidate, George W. Bush, did not receive the majority of the popular vote. Instead, majority support was for Democratic candidate Al Gore. The result of the popular vote was 48.4% for Gore vs. 47.9% for Bush, a difference of more than 500,000 votes.
The news spread quickly around the globe. As a high school student in Mexico, a country in which the loser in the popular vote could only seize victory via fraud, I found the result especially surprising. How could this be possible in the US? The answer was easy to find, yet difficult to understand. Since so many SIPA students come form an international background, they probably shared my confusion.
In light of the upcoming election, it might be useful to understand the Electoral College in order to determine where to focus our attention on November 6th, particularly due to the fact that recent polls indicate that Obama has 50.3% of popular vote support, slightly ahead of Romney who carries 48.6% of support.
The Electoral College is the center of a process by which the president of the United States is elected every four years. There are a total of 538 members (votes) of the Electoral College distributed among the states, a figure identical to the total of all members of the US Congress: 100 senators, 435 representatives, and three additional members representing D.C.
Each state has two senators and, depending on its population, a proportional number of representatives. The total number of votes in the Electoral College is divided among the states according to each state’s total members of Congress. For example, California has 55 Electoral College votes and Vermont has 3. A majority of 270 electoral votes (538 divided by two, plus one) is required to win the Presidency.
The electoral votes are determined by the popular vote with a “winner takes all” system in most states. This means that the candidate that receives the majority of the popular vote within the State receives the total amount of electoral votes corresponding to that state. Maine and Nebraska are two exceptions to this, using a variation of the “proportional representation” system. The fact that most states have a “winner takes all” system increases the possibility of discrepancies between popular vote and electoral vote outcomes.
As in most democracies, various political parties have different levels of support in certain regions or states. This implies that there is a pool of states – known as “safe states” – in which a party usually gets majority support by a wide margin. For example, New York has voted Democrat while Texas has voted Republican in the past four elections. Only in states in which both parties have relatively equal chances of winning do the candidates focus their attention. These states are known as “swing” or “battle” states: for example, Ohio and Florida have each voted twice for Republicans and twice for Democrats in the last four elections.
The basic characteristics described above imply that, in the coming days, we should not focus our attention on national polls alone. According to Nate Silver of the New York Times, there is a 7.2% chance that the winner of the electoral vote, and therefore the next president of the US, will not win the popular vote. For example, according to this analysis, while Obama has a 71.0% chance of wining the popular vote, he has a 74.4% chance of winning the electoral vote.
Additionally, polls indicate that Obama has virtually secured 237 votes of the Electoral College, while Romney has wrapped up 206 votes. The remaining 95 are “tossups” corresponding to Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10). Polls within these states show that Obama has a slight advantage in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin, while Romney has a slight advantage in Florida. Colorado and Virginia are basically 50-50.
If both candidates are able to maintain the slight advantages they have in each state, Obama would have 281 electoral votes and Romney 235. The remaining 22 votes belong to Virginia and Colorado, but the outcome there would be irrelevant as 281 votes are sufficient to win. Hence, we will see Romney concentrating his campaigning in Virginia and Colorado, but also in Ohio, which by itself is the only state that could change the outcome if Romney manages to secure Virginia and Colorado. Silver estimates that the possibility of the result in Ohio defining the election is 49%. Unsurprisingly, the chance of Obama winning Ohio is 76.3%. Indeed, this is close to Obama’s overall probability of winning the electoral vote.
Our main interest while following the 2012 US election should be in Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia. These states account for only 8% of the total US population, however, the registered voters within these states will most likely decide who will be the next president of the most powerful country in the World.
Héctor Trujillo is a first-year Master of Public Administration student.