US Politics – The Electoral College
270 to Win – The American Electoral College System Explained
On August 13th, to the frustration of his Republican allies and the bemusement of his opponents, Donald Trump chose to campaign in Connecticut, a heavily liberal state. Charlie Hopper, a prominent conservative writer, complained to Politico.com:
“At this point, Florida looks in trouble, North Carolina looks in trouble, they don’t even know who their people are in Ohio…He can go have lunch in Connecticut and be home for supper, but the map is changing rapidly in the opposite direction. Hillary Clinton is not going to move in to defend Connecticut just because Trump went there.”
To an outside observer not well versed in American Presidential elections, Mr. Hopper’s exasperation may seem a bit bizarre. After all, shouldn’t a Presidential candidate try and squeeze out votes from anywhere they can to win? Why shouldn’t Trump go to Connecticut and encourage his supporters there to show up and vote for him in November, even if they happen to be a near-certain minority in that liberal-leaning state?
This line of thinking would make sense if American Presidential Elections were run like a direct election in which the national popular vote winner was automatically elected President, but they are not. Instead, in the United States we have what is called the “Electoral College” system. We felt it would be helpful to give a brief crash course on this system for the benefit of our readers who are unfamiliar with American elections.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is a group of representatives from each state who elect the next President of the United States every four years (or re-elect the sitting one). You read that right- it is these electors, not the voters, who officially finalize a Presidential election. Nowadays, they are a formality in that they are obligated to cast their electoral votes for the popular vote winner in their state. While there are isolated incidents of “faithless electors” refusing to support the candidate who won their state, so far these have never affected the outcome of an election.
Each state is assigned electors in an amount roughly proportional to their population, and the numbers are recalculated every ten years following a census. A good rule of thumb is just to add up how many Congressional Representatives and Senators a state has, and you will have their electoral vote amount. For example, California is the largest state by population and has 53 Representatives along with the two Senators every state has. Thus, California has 55 electoral votes. The fewest possible is 3, which is the amount small states like Alaska and Montana have.
When you add up all the states’ electoral votes (plus Washington DC, which is not a state but gets three votes as well), the total size of the Electoral College is 538 electors. Thus, to win a majority of the Electoral College and become the President of the United States, a Presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes.
More than anything else, 270 is the most important number for anyone running for President today, even more crucial than the overall popular vote. In fact, four times in American History the winner of the popular vote DID NOT win the Presidency because they lost in the electoral college. The most recent example of this was in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore won the overall national popular vote by over half a million votes, but lost the Electoral College 271-266 to Governor George W. Bush of Texas.
For weeks the candidates battled over Florida and its 25 electoral votes, but in the end the Supreme Court ended the recounts and gave Bush the election. For all the fuss over Florida however, if Gore had simply won the much smaller state of New Hampshire and its 4 electoral votes, he would have been elected President (he lost that state by only 7,000 votes out of well over 500,000 cast, 48%-47%). This map, from the wonderful website 270towin.com, shows how a national popular vote victory can sometimes not be enough:
About “Swing States”
All in all, while the candidate who wins the national popular vote usually also wins the Presidency, Presidential candidates must still focus their energy on states that are close enough where their campaign efforts could alter the electoral result. For instance, California and New York are reliably “Blue” States (Blue for Democrats, Red for Republicans) and so you won’t see Hillary Clinton visiting them through November, except perhaps for campaign fundraising events with her most fervent supporters. Clinton also won’t bother campaigning in states like Alabama or Kansas, which are certain to vote Republican.
Instead, Hillary has been focusing her energy on just a handful of states like Florida, Colorado, and New Hampshire – the so-called “swing” or “purple” states. These close states aren’t totally locked in forever; over time, states that used to be reliably for one party can shift. For instance, Virginia used to be a reliably Red state until Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012. Demographic changes in increasingly urban and modernized northern Virginia gave the Democrats an opening, and now Virginia is a swing state which is leaning Democratic.
This brings us to what is likely the most important swing state of all, Ohio. A perennial swing state, Ohio almost always votes with the candidate who ends up winning the election. In fact, the winner of Ohio has won the Presidency every year since 1960, the last time Ohio didn’t get it right. The state went for Nixon that year, and he lost, but it was one of the closest elections in history- the national popular vote came out 49.72% to 49.55% in John F. Kennedy’s favor.
Perhaps more crucially for Donald Trump, no Republican has EVER won the Presidency without winning Ohio (a couple of Democrats have however, including JFK in the example above). Fortunately for him, even as Clinton has built healthy polling leads, Ohio stays somewhat close and within reach of his campaign.
Ohio: Trump vs. Clinton
Back to Connecticut
I hope that you now have a better understanding of why it was so bizarre for Donald Trump to be spending valuable time campaigning in Connecticut, a state that will almost assuredly be sending its electoral votes to Hillary Clinton. This is the electoral map as it looks right now based on aggregated polls in each state:
The darker the Red or Blue hue, the more “solid” a state is for one candidate or another. The states that are grey are the closest “toss-up” swing states, where polls show that the candidates are within a few percentage points of each other. As you can see, right now Hillary Clinton has quite the commanding advantage on the electoral map. Were the election held today, it looks like Hillary Clinton would already be beyond the 270 she needs to win even without states like Ohio and Florida. In a show of confidence, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has recently announced they are tentatively pulling some resources from increasingly blue-leaning Virginia and Colorado to spend additional time and money in more competitive states.
Thanks to the Electoral College, voters who live in swing states will be overwhelmed with campaign advertisements and calls from now until November. Fortunately for the Law Offices of Chris M. Ingram, we are in California and will have some peace and quiet in this essentially already-decided state.
I hope you enjoyed this quick briefing on our American Electoral College system, and I believe it will make following the election this November a bit more understandable for you. Remember, 270 is what matters above all else!
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