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Commentary By Charles Blahous

The Moderating Influence of the Electoral College

Economics Employment

It appears that for the second time in the last five presidential elections, the winner of a plurality of the national popular vote will have failed to secure the electoral college majority required to claim the presidency.  This has led many to ask questions about the rationale underlying our electoral college system, and in particular why we do not simply award the presidency to the candidate with the highest popular vote total.  I refer readers to the Federalist papers and other constitutional histories to answer those questions, as this is not the optimal place to do so.  My purpose here is instead to document a more rarely-discussed phenomenon; the role of the electoral college in moderating our politics.

This statement about moderation may surprise some readers, given that our electoral system has just delivered a president-elect whose rhetorical style is often immoderate.  By moderation I am referring here not to restrained rhetoric, but rather to the degree of political moderation exhibited by individual states, defined as their hosting a rough balance of competing views. 

An electoral system’s incentive structure is reflected in how candidates campaign.  Under a popular vote system there would be no concept of “swing states.”  A candidate would have equal incentive to campaign in any part of the nation where additional votes could be found.  It is likely that there would be a focus on efficiency; stops in California would be far more frequent than stops in Nevada, simply because one could touch more voters on the California stops.

In an electoral college system, however, the campaigns are induced to focus less on the sheer size of a state and more on its political moderation.  The so-called swing or battleground states are those states with roughly equal numbers of voters potentially willing to back different candidates, such that an extra successful effort by one candidate could tip the balance.  This is not a theoretical concept, but rather an observable phenomenon. For example, this year the candidates repeatedly visited swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and New Hampshire.  Tiny New Hampshire, with its mere four electoral votes, received more candidate attention than California with its 55.  Why?  It is because New Hampshire was open to being persuaded by either candidate, whereas California was not.

Politically moderate states offer a superior return on a candidate’s investment under the electoral college system.  Consider that the main challenge facing campaigns under current law is how to most effectively convert their persuasive efforts into electoral votes. Based on vote totals posted as of November 16, here are the ten states that proved to be most worth the candidates’ attention this year.

Table 1: States Warranting Greatest Attention under Electoral College System

This chart provides a ready explanation for the extra time spent by the presidential candidates this year in states such as New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania.   It also shows that the attention given to North Carolina proved not as good an investment, as the state was less competitive than originally supposed. By contrast Secretary Clinton might have benefited from spending time in Wisconsin, and Mr. Trump from time in Minnesota.

Consider the states that were least worth the candidates’ attention this year:

Table 2: States (+ DC) Warranting Least Attention under Electoral College System

Candidates have the least incentive to spend time campaigning in the District of Columbia, whose presidential election outcomes are a foregone conclusion.  The states next most disadvantaged by the electoral college this year were all Trump strongholds – Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alabama and West Virginia.  Much attention has been given to the fact that California’s popular vote imbalance was rendered less important by the electoral college.  That is certainly true, but California is notable primarily for its size; the lopsided outcomes in many Trump-supporting states rendered vote-mining there even less worthwhile.

Candidates should and do respond to these incentives.  The more hospitable a state is to competing viewpoints, the more attention presidential candidates give to it.  Under a popular vote system candidates would campaign in a different way, shifting their emphasis to collecting the largest number of popular votes wherever they could be found, rather than appealing to swing voters. 

A baseball analogy may be illuminating.  In baseball, the game is won by the team scoring the most runs, not collecting the most hits.  Occasionally there is a game in which one team collects a surplus of hits and frequently fills the bases, yet loses to a team that hits the timely home run despite being shut down most of the game.  This can be extremely frustrating to the losing team, but is widely understood to be fully fair.  Both sides know that if the rules had been different, the results would be too; teams would employ different strategies including greater recruitment of high-batting-average singles-hitters, while paying less to low-batting-average power sluggers.

So too with the electoral college.  Existing results are reflective of how the candidates campaigned given the rules of the contest; no one can know whether the winner would have been the same under different rules.   

Many have expressed concern about the degree to which America is becoming more polarized, with everything from residential patterns to social media content becoming increasingly segregated according to political philosophy.  We engage more frequently with others who share our political views, and have less sympathy with or even understanding of competing viewpoints.  A popular vote system, by eliminating presidential candidates’ incentives to concentrate their appeals on states that harbor a balance of competing views, would almost certainly accelerate this polarizing trend.  Whatever the other merits or flaws of the electoral college system it still serves as a moderating influence, mitigating the ongoing polarization of American politics.

Charles Blahous is a senior research fellow for the Mercatus Center, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a contributor to E21. He recently served as a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare.

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