No Panaceas

Monday, April 05, 2004
The Irrelevance of Winning the Popular Vote: I've been planning on writing some posts about the Electoral College, that gloriously quirky institution the founders whipped up for our endless amusement. This editorial in yesterday's Post gives me a good starting off point. In it political scientist Thomas Schaller argues that the 2004 election might produce another situation where the winner of the national popular vote loses the electoral college vote, and thus the election. Schaller's twist is that it might be Bush who ironically loses the election despite carrying a plurality of the popular vote. (By the way, this is what lots of pundits thought would happen in 2000.)

Schaller refers to this type of outcome as a "misfired" election, and goes on to predict that, "Two misfires in a row would cause enough of an uproar to prompt a genuine national conversation about whether the Electoral College system is still the best way to elect a president." Perhaps, but I want to make a point here that always seems to get missed:
Winning the popular vote is completely and totally irrelevant. Candidates are not trying to win the popular vote, they are trying to win the electoral vote, and they makes choices accordingly.

Consider football. Let's imagine that after the Super Bowl fans of the losing team -- that is the team that scored fewer points -- nonetheless asserted that their team "truly" won because they produced more yards on offense. Would people buy that argument? No. First they would say that the game is about points, not yards. Then they would go on and say that, besides, since the game is about points and not yards, that the winning team probably made all kinds of decisions that reduced its yardage total in exchange for creating or protecting a points lead, e.g., kicking field goals, running instead of passing to run down the clock. If both teams' goal was to produce the most yardage then the game would have been played very differently.

This analogy applies almost exactly to this business of misfired elections, and the continued snide statements made by Gore supporters that somehow Bush "losing" the popular vote is relevant. (Note that I am not talking about Florida here -- which is a wholly separate issue.) If the goal in 2000 was to win the popular vote then both candidates would have done all kinds of things differently. They would have traveled differently, focused on different issues, and spent their money differently, all in an attempt to win the most votes nationally, rather than the most votes on a state by state basis. Under the Electoral College candidates expend little resources on a state that they know they will win or lose easily. But under a popular vote every vote counts equally. Thus, for example, Bush might have spent far more resources on California, Texas, and New York.

Here's the punchline. If we went back to 2000, but ran the election this time based just on the popular vote, we do not know who would have won.

There are some good reasons to change or scrap the Electoral College. The occasional "misfire" of this sort is a not one of them.