Monday, August 01, 2016

Pennsylvania Is Always Purple (And Other Electoral College Observations)

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article titled "Electoral Map Gives Donald Trump Few Places to Go," which suggested that the electoral college was effectively tilted in favor of Hillary Clinton this year. The piece referred to a "daunting electoral map" producing a "narrow" and "precarious" path to an electoral vote majority for the Republican presidential ticket, arguing that Trump's chances of victory virtually depended on his carrying Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina—while Clinton only needed to pick off one of these four states to defeat him. Since the interaction between the political geography of the American electorate and the institutional structure of American electoral rules is a particular interest of mine, I thought I'd share a few observations based on the article, which is itself worth reading:

1. The electoral college is crucial to understanding candidate strategies, but is very unlikely to prove decisive to the outcome. The probability of a national popular vote winner failing to receive a majority of electoral votes is vanishingly small unless the popular vote margin is extremely narrow (as it was in 2000). This is because there is no significant partisan bias in the electoral college, and because individual swing states do not move independently of each other but rather collectively mirror national trends. Any analysis (like this one from the Times) arguing that Candidate X has a clear advantage in the electoral vote is thus suggesting that Candidate X is clearly ahead in the popular vote—and vice versa. Especially at this early stage of the race, it is advisable to avoid getting bogged down in trying to predict the election by gaming out various electoral college scenarios, as they will only come into play if the race is truly neck-and-neck heading into Election Day.

2. A casual reading of the Times article can leave the reader with the impression that the scope of the electoral battleground is likely to shrink significantly this year, with several states that were contested by both parties in 2012 openly conceded to one side or the other in 2016. But a more careful examination of the piece doesn't turn up any hard examples of states that fit that profile. We are not told that the Trump campaign is actually abandoning any of the states that Romney contested four years ago—only that it considers Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania pivotal to its chances and North Carolina a must-win but potentially vulnerable state. None of this should be much of a surprise; the Romney campaign was in a very similar strategic position in 2012 (except that it considered Virginia more critical than Pennsylvania). We should expect both campaigns to devote a large proportion of their resources to the first three states in any event, since they cast the most electoral votes of all the potential battlegrounds and are therefore highly likely to determine the outcome of the election. Competitive but less populous states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada are likely to be actively fought over by the campaigns as well, but they are much cheaper to contest and are less likely to serve as the tipping point that determines which party receives a majority in the electoral college.

3. The main development cited by the Times that works in favor of the Clinton campaign is the potential partisan evolution of Colorado and Virginia. In the past two elections, the results in both states closely matched the national popular vote. But if the Democrats could count on achieving slender victories in both states in the event of a very close race nationwide, the party would stand a decent chance of gaining an electoral vote majority even if it were to lose both Ohio and Florida. Note, however, that the article does not claim that either state is safely Democratic—only that Clinton is doing relatively well there based on recent polling. Moreover, these apparent trends would only make a difference in the event of a virtual tie in the overall popular vote. If Trump pulls ahead nationally, Colorado and Virginia will suddenly look quite unsafe for Clinton.

4. Because the article (justifiably) places particular emphasis on Pennsylvania's potentially decisive role in the 2016 election, it is worth noting that the state is often somewhat mischaracterized in electoral college analyses. Pennsylvania has not voted Republican for president since 1988, which prompts some writers to classify it as a dependable "blue" state or as part of the Democratic geographic "base." But this is not quite accurate. Pennsylvania is actually a competitive battleground state—"purple" rather than reliably blue—that usually sits one notch to the Democratic side of an even split between the parties. It has voted Democratic for the past six consecutive elections because Democratic nominees have won the national popular vote in five of those elections, while losing narrowly in the sixth (2004, when Pennsylvania voted for John Kerry by the same 2.5-point margin by which he lost the national vote to George W. Bush).

For this reason, Democrats should not count on Pennsylvania to be a safe bastion for their party—and Republicans should not view actively contesting it as achieving a bold invasion of enemy territory. Some analysts have suggested that Trump could outperform previous Republican presidential candidates in Pennsylvania due to the demographic composition of its electorate. Whether or not he manages to do so, it seems certain that the state will receive considerable attention from both parties between now and November—just as it has in every presidential election for the past 60 years.