When Republicans recently announced plans to manipulate how states apportion their Electoral College votes, they were met with a public outcry: An unfair, sneaky exercise in goalpost-moving, critics said. Some architects of the proposed changes have since appeared to back off.
In fact, there's another, less controversial, way that the GOP could change the country's electoral rules to advance its self-interest. In fact, this way of improving the chances of electing a Republican president would almost certainly attract Democratic support: the creation of a national popular vote.
It might seem hard to believe that Republicans have more to gain from adopting a popular vote system than Democrats. After all, Democrats are the ones who are supposed to hate the Electoral College, which advantages the small rural states that lean right, slights the large urbanized ones that lean left, and—most painfully—cost their party the 2000 election.
But twelve years after George Bush became president despite winning fewer votes than the other guy, the country's electoral geography has changed in ways that ought to make the popular vote particularly attractive for Republicans. That's because, over the last decade, Democrats have benefitted from an electoral college structural advantage that's even more important than its bias against big states: the current system’s bias against regionalism.
The Electoral College, where most states' electoral votes are allocated on a winner-take-all basis, privileges candidates with a broad base of geographic support. A candidate who counts on overwhelming support in one section of the country risks winning the popular vote without winning the most electoral votes; conversely, a candidate that barely wins a large number of states could conceivably triumph without winning the popular vote. To take an extreme example, imagine that a Republican won 90 percent of the vote in the South, but 30 percent of the vote in every other state. In this scenario, Republicans would decisively lose the Electoral College while carrying the popular vote by double-digits.
Fans of the Electoral College system see the anti-regionalist bias as a virtue, something that requires American pols to avoid the sort of regional campaigning that can split a country apart. But what's clear is that, over the past decade, this aspect of the Electoral College has advantaged Democrats. Since 2000, Republicans' biggest gains have been made in a very particular region: Appalachia and the inland South, where Barack Obama’s 2012 performance registered as the worst of any Democratic candidate in decades. But these gains haven’t helped them in the Electoral College: Every state of the highland South already leaned Republican in 2000, so additional GOP gains haven’t yielded additional electoral votes.
At the same time as the inland South moved toward Republicans, well-educated suburbs began consolidating as Democratic. Former suburban bellwethers abandoned Republicans in 2008 and 2012, while affluent and diverse counties (like Jefferson, CO; Fairfax, VA; Chester, PA; Wake, NC) gave up their traditional GOP allegiances and voted for Obama in 2008. But unlike the GOP’s relatively concentrated gains in Appalachia, Democratic gains were spread widely enough to allow the party to flip states like Colorado, Virginia, and Nevada.
The easiest way to judge the Democrats’ newfound Electoral College advantage is by comparing individual states to the popular vote. Last November, Obama won states worth 285 electoral votes by a larger margin than the country as a whole, suggesting that Obama would have had the advantage if the popular vote were tied. But the current system appears even more troubling for Republicans when you consider the wide gap between the “tipping point” state and the national popular vote. Obama’s 270th electoral vote came from Colorado, which voted for the president by nearly 5.4 points—almost 1.8 points more than his popular vote victory. Simply put, the GOP is probably better off trying to win the national popular vote the state contests in Pennsylvania or Colorado, since the national popular vote was much closer in 2012 than the vote in those tipping point states. Obama enjoyed a similar Electoral College advantage in 2008.
The Democratic advantage in the Electoral College won’t persist indefinitely, but it’s not assured to dissipate in the near-term, either. The two party coalitions have been stable since 2000, even if the details have shifted. It's even easy to envision how short-term shifts could reinforce the Democrats’ advantage. Imagine, for instance, that black turnout and support for Democratic candidates falls roughly to 2000 levels in 2016. The national popular vote would be much closer, but Democrats would lose very little ground in Colorado, New Hampshire, or Iowa, where the African-American population is relatively small. In Pennsylvania, Obama’s losses would be commensurate with the nation as a whole under this scenario, but not nearly large enough to make up the gap between the popular vote and the Electoral College. Meanwhile, the major project of GOP strategists—ensuring large Republican gains among Latinos—could give them a popular vote victory without winning back electoral vote-rich states in the mid-Atlantic or Midwest.
It's true that the GOP could do some things to erase their structural Electoral College deficit. Winning back the well-educated suburbanites critical to Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania could help. But it's unclear whether the Republicans can adopt the more socially moderate positions necessary to make gains outside of Denver or Washington.
Not only is the GOP probably better off trying to win the national popular vote than trying to carry Pennsylvania or Colorado, but Republicans will also find it easier to leverage one of their clearer advantages: fundraising. In an era of unlimited corporate donations, Republicans are generally understood to have a fundraising advantage, just as they did against an incumbent president in 2012. But with so much money and so few battleground states to spend it in, Republicans struggled to take advantage of their financial advantage. The airwaves reached saturation level months before the election, and Romney-aligned Super PACs burned excess cash on long shots where Obama would ultimately win by as much as 10 points. A post-election study by John Sides confirmed that even a large advantage in advertisements didn’t appreciably change the results.
The Electoral College narrows the battleground to a short list of competitive states, which reduces the number of target media markets and the amount of money necessary to saturate the airwaves. In a popular vote system, campaigns would air advertisements nationally, increasing the number of target media markets and the amount of money required to reach the point of diminishing returns. Just how much that will help Republicans is hard to say, and certainly context shapes the effectiveness of advertisements. Nonetheless, studies suggest that the Obama campaign’s ’08 advertising advantage was worth a statistically significant but minor (.5 percent) improvement in Obama’s performance for every 1,000 advertisements. That number could be higher in the Midwest or other areas with a large number of swing voters.
There are high-minded reasons for supporting the national popular vote—namely, that it more closely adheres to the principle of “one man, one vote.” To judge from their intrigues to reapportion electoral votes in Virginia or Michigan, the current GOP efforts are motivated less by by lofty principles than self-interest. Still, even on those terms, it’s surprising that Republicans aren’t considering the popular vote as a more legitimate means to advance their cause. Abandoning the Electoral College may be the clearest way for them to take advantage of what gains they've made over the past decade.