It seems an arbitrary and obscure thing to be interested in, but I think there's a lot more than base politics to read from it. In 1960, for instance, Pennsylvania and California had the same number of votes; today, California has twice as many as PA. The trend of population away from big, clumsy industrial states to the south and southwest is important for a variety of reasons--Florida only had ten electoral votes, for crying out loud, which is less than Indiana has today.
Every four years, I like to sit down and just start crunching numbers. Who is likely to win what state? What does one candidate have to pull off to win? What party trends have changed from year to year?
Much has been made of the Red State versus Blue State rivalry, which I don't quite believe. Such things are fairly fluid in the grand scheme of things; it was barely two decades ago that California was solidly Republican and Texas Democrat, notions that are absolutely unthinkable today. The New England states, for centuries, used to be the rockbed Republican stronghold; today, you could throw rocks all day and not hit a single GOP congressman. Likewise, the "Solid South" is still solid, but just for a different party.
You could see a little bit of this in the 2008 election. McCain was going to lose for certain, but I was a bit surprised at which states switched sides. Places like Ohio and Florida were reasonable; they had been swing states and had valid demographic and political reasons for switching sides. But one would expect that it would be the weakest states that would flip. When Indiana--one of the safest Republican strongholds--was announced as one of the first few states to go for Obama, I knew it was over. Likewise, Virginia and North Carolina (and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and Colorado) were both surprises. Is this a new trend--are the Democrats finally going to crack the South and Mountain states? It's hard to tell this early, of course; 2008 was certainly an anomaly, just as you can't ascribe Reagan's winning of Massachusetts in 1984 as flipping that state more than it being the intense drubbing Mondale got.
Of course, every election cycle there are calls for reforming or abolishing the electoral college. This, I think, would be a bad idea. I'm not going to drag out all of the reasons for or against--any poli sci prof will gladly do that for a few hours if you ask him at a cocktail party--except to point out a few highlights:
- You can't recreate history. Lots of people state that Gore would have won had we had a popular vote instead of the electoral college. Well, maybe. The problem is, had the election been decided by popular vote instead of the electoral college, both candidates would have acted differently--Bush would have gone to upstate New York and northern California, while Gore would have shook hands in Austin and ran ads in the deep South. The vote totals would have been different because the rules would have been different. It's not useful to compare the results of one method when everyone involved was using a different method.
- The most compelling argument for the electoral college is that it requires a broad base of support. I used to think this was bunk, but not so much anymore. In the electoral college, of course, any votes above 50.1% in each specific state are effectively wasted--they can't spill over to another state. This would prevent someone from scoring huge victories in one region, demographic, or ideology, and freeze out the rest. (Of course, the opposite can happen--and did, in 2000--but I think the effect in this opposing case is much more neutral.*)
- Everything for the most part balances itself out. Sure, there are a lot of wasted votes in Utah, Texas, and Alaska. But there's roughly the equivalent number of wasted votes in Vermont, New York, and Oregon. The exact same thing would happen if the popular vote counted--more Texans may be inclined to vote since they wouldn't be wasted, but so would more Californians. (The same logic applies to the criticism that smaller states get a bonus because of the allocation rules. Last I checked, New England was Democrat and all are pretty small states, same as the Midwestern states that vote solidly Republican.)
- And--the most practical and realistic reason--is that of fraud. What would have happened if a popular vote total was within a few thousand votes? Every single state in the nation would be doing what Florida had to do in 2000. Does anyone really want that? Is the trade-off of the (I think phantom) inequities of the voting system worth the absolute nightmare that would ensue?
[For the record I think the biggest change in store is some of the Mountain states--Montana is surprisingly close for some reason, and Nevada and Colorado are both easily "new" swing states. It is possible that the non-deep South is a Democratic pickup as well, such as Virginia or North Carolina. As for GOP pickups, it will be hard to tell, but I think New Jersey is doable--surprisingly, given its demographics, it has been tantalizingly close--and possibly some of the less high protestant New England states. But the GOP will have a much harder time doing that; the easier method is to have more population grow in their base states, as has happened the last two census allocations.]
I'm not necessarily opposed to the different proposed reforms, such as everyone adopting the Maine/Nebraska rules, though I would prefer that not happen--see point #2 above. I'm also not a huge fan of the drastic measures both sides take to resolve the gray areas--and also the complete lackadaisical attitude that most states have towards the process. The inauguration date can certainly be pushed back two or three weeks if that means we'll have a legitimate certification of a president rather than some rushed court ruling based on "We don't have enough time." It may not be ideal, but if the Supreme Court says it's OK then, dammit, it's OK. On the other hand, letting electors handwrite their votes to screw up (like one Minnesota elector did, voting for John Edwards twice for both President and Vice President in 2004) due to some quaint notion of state control (at least in this area that is supposed to be more or less ceremonial but has the potential to be disastrous) is absolutely ludicrous.
This is one of those times where I think the Founding Fathers may not have known exactly how things were going to work out, but still got this one mostly right.
*For those keeping score at home, it would work like this:
With the popular vote, it is conceivable that someone could rack up huge vote totals in the South--not exactly unheard of given that region's history--and win with only 10 to 20% of the vote in the other states. This wouldn't be possible with the electoral college.
With the electoral college, you could win with 50.1% of the vote in a select number of states and come out the winner while only garnering (realistically) about 45% of the overall popular vote.
From a practical standpoint, neither is particularly likely--the states you would have to win are a mix of Red, Blue, and swing states. It's theoretically possible but not a valid scenario given the current political climate. However--since we're all about theory here--I still think the latter is preferable, since it requires the candidate to be broadly popular over several states, rather than catering to a specific region or demographic. At this point, it comes down to political philosophy--should a candidate who truly only represents one region of our nation still win because they legitimately won the most votes, or should an electoral mechanism be in place to prevent such a thing from happening, even if it means someone with the fewest total votes wins?