How the Race Will Be Won

By ksascomm

Political Science Associate Professor Adam Sheingate on some critical, and sometimes overlooked, components of winning a presidential campaign.

Most people tend to forget that the U.S. presidential election is really 51 elections, not one. Because of the Electoral College, candidates in the general election are competing in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, in order to reach the 270 electoral votes required to become president. This is something media accounts of the race do not address enough.

When you think about a candidate’s chances for election, you have to think in these terms: What does the map have to look like to get to 270 electoral votes? Many criticize the Electoral College, and rightly so. Because electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, votes for a losing candidate are almost meaningless. Five million people voted for John McCain in California in 2008, yet Barack Obama received all 55 electoral votes from that state. A better system would tie the outcome more directly to the popular vote. As we know from the 2000 election, this is not always so. Reforms are unlikely, however, and no matter what system we put in place, the rules will always dictate how the game is played.

Thus, even with all of the money in campaigns, candidates must still allocate resources wisely to garner 270 electoral votes. Both campaigns will avoid spending money in states like Maryland that are almost certain to go one way or another. Instead, campaigns focus on contested, or battleground, states that will ultimately decide the race. In 2008, Obama and McCain made more than 20 personal appearances in four battleground states, skipping 27 other states entirely during the general election. This makes sense given that the average margin of victory in these 27 states was more than 20 percent. By contrast, the average margin of victory in the four most heavily visited states was only 6 percent. We see the same pattern in advertising. Sixty percent of all advertising in the last months of the 2008 campaign was in just five states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina—where the average margin of victory was just under 5 percent.

Looking ahead to this year’s race, the congressional reapportionment following the 2010 Census has shifted the distribution of electoral votes across the country. States won by Obama in 2008 have lost a total of six electoral votes, which may change the calculus of the campaign slightly. More important, it is unlikely that Indiana or North Carolina, states Obama won narrowly in 2008, will go Democratic in 2012. States like Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, and Florida will be key battlegrounds for the campaign. On the other side of the column, McCain won Missouri by less than 4,000 votes in 2008; the state will be closely contested again this year.

Organization matters, especially in these battleground states. One of the great successes of the Obama campaign in 2008 was the way it transformed a grassroots organization created to win the nomination into an effective campaign operation for the general election. Obama will have to re-create the organization and enthusiasm, something that may be difficult to replicate this time around. His Republican challenger will try to use his momentum from the nomination to build a strong organization in key states. The lesson of recent elections is that the outcome will depend on which campaign builds a superior organization to get out the vote.

  • Dahlan

    The Electoral College has no impact on voter fraud. It’s just an attnquaied way of allocating votes by state to elect the President instead of using the popular vote.The only argument might be that if there were a Direct Popular Election of the President then if you could generate thousands of fraudulent votes in one corrupt locale those votes would have more impact on the election than if there was the Electoral College to dilute their impact. One might wonder how many dead Democrats would still be voting every election in Chicago, for example.

  • Jeremy Epstein ’95

    Not sure why this is irking me so much, but I read the opinion of Prof. Sheingate [Spring 2012]. I was particularly taken aback by his comment, “a better system would tie the outcome more directly to the popular vote.”

    Is Prof. Sheingate saying that his system is better than the system set up by the Founders who put the Electoral College in place? If so, why? And, if it’s all popular vote, wouldn’t candidates spend even more of their time in only a few key places? Plus, the fear of smaller states would become even more pronounced as their relevance would almost evaporate, which kind of defeats the point of the Union in some respect.

    I’m no expert, but if you’re going to attack and suggest the dismantling of one of the core tenets of Democracy, I think you need to put some more meat behind it.

  • Adam Sheingate, Professor, Political Science

    In a recent piece for the New York Times, humorist Mo Rocca explored the effect of the Electoral College with a group of third-graders. The experiment was simple: Each student voted on whether they preferred markers or colored pencils; markers won the popular vote, 14-10. But when Mr. Rocca divided the kids into five groups (or states) and then counted the winner from each group in an “electoral college,” colored pencils won 3-2. Some of the kids were angry: “It’s about everyone’s vote,” one child exclaimed, “It has to be fair for everybody who voted for markers, not just for colored pencils. It’s 14 to 10, it should stay that way.”

    Although there are many reasons to admire the Constitution the Founders bequeathed to us, the Electoral College violates a basic notion of fairness. Just ask a third-grader.

    Here’s a link to the video: