Breaking Down the Myths About Swing States
National Popular Vote disregards the benefits of our current Electoral College system
According to National Popular Vote, it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing. Voters outside of “swing states,” NPV’s materials claim, are “spectators to the presidential election” and are “effectively disenfranchised.”
A closer look reveals that NPV’s claims come from a superficial understanding of political campaigns that does not survive under the scrutiny of common sense. The suggestion that certain votes or voters matter more than others is not unique to the Electoral College. In fact, not all voters are equal even in single-member districts.
A look at some of the actual data is appropriate. Listed below are the states where the margin between the top two candidates was less than five percent in the last dozen presidential elections. The color of the state name indicates the winner of that state (red for Republicans, blue for Democrats); bold indicates the state was not within 5% in the previous election. (I am using close election results to define “swing states.” There are other plausible definitions.)
2008: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio
2004: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
2000: Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin
1996: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
1992: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin
1988: California, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin
1984: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island
1980: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin
1976: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
1972: none (the closes state was Minnesota, which Nixon won by 5.51%)
1968: Alaska, California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin
1964: Arizona, Florida, Idaho
First, these groups of the closest states in presidential elections are far from static. Of the above elections, only 1996 is a subset of states from the preceding election. With Bill Clinton running for reelection, Ross Perot running again, and Bob Dole representing no significant departure from George H.W. Bush, 1996 turned out to be something like a repeat of 1992. The “swing states” group changes over time–sometimes slowly and other times dramatically–and typically becomes clear only in the closing months or even weeks of a campaign. Moreover, it changes as political parties work to expand their appeal and broaden their coalitions.
Second, contrary to a recent SOS blog commenter, the number of swing states is not in obvious decline. While this last election featured a smaller number of battleground states than usual, one data point is not a trend. (And even if there were a trend, the Electoral College has remained the same, so it could not be the cause.) Over the period of time used above, the average number of close states was between 10 and 11.
But what about the allegation that no matter how many or which states are swing states, the system is unfair? After all, some voters receive more attention from candidates and campaigns. And do votes in “safe states” even matter?
In fact, the Electoral College simply makes more obvious the realities of political campaigns and democratic processes. Most campaigns are fought out in single-member districts, where whoever gets the most votes wins. That’s what National Popular Vote would turn presidential elections into, making the nation one of the biggest and most complex single-member districts in the world. Yet in political campaigns in single-member districts, candidates focus on certain voters and ignore others. Campaigns often spend a great deal of money on data and consultants to slice and dice up the potential electorate. They do whatever they can to identify those voters most likely to change their vote in favor of their candidate. And they ignore everyone else as much as possible. Any city council or state legislative candidate who has sat down with a political consultant has had this conversation. This is the reality of politics, a reality ignored by NPV. They fancifully suggest that under their plan, candidates would campaign for every single vote from every single voter. In fact, NPV would only shift somewhat which voters receive the attention of presidential campaigns.
Do votes in safe states matter? In truth, the vote that matters is the one that puts a candidate beyond their opponent. Every vote after that might be said not to matter. The same might be said of all the votes for a losing candidate. Statistically speaking, voting is irrational. It isn’t something we do because we really expect any of the races on our ballot to come down to our single vote determining which candidate takes office, though the possibility (usually more remote than winning the lottery) is there. Voters understand this, even if subconsciously. Millions of “safe state” voters turnout to vote for president every four years. Even in elections destined to be blowouts (i.e. 1964 and 1972), millions of Americans turned out to vote for the looser.
The United States is a vast geographical territory with a large and remarkably diverse population. Each of those facts creates significant challenges to maintaining a stable political system, the kind of system that can maintain justice and allow for freedom and prosperity. The Electoral College system helps provide stability in our national elections through a democratic process filtered through the states. It creates incentives to building national coalitions and decentralizes election administration.
National Popular Vote fails to recognize the benefits of our current Electoral College system. Worse, it misunderstands the effects its own plan would have on the reality of political campaigns and voting.