About That Electoral College “Firewall”

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I have been saying for some time now that if Romney began closing the gap in the national tracking polls, as the political science forecast models suggested would be the case, he would also gain ground in the battleground states.    This is precisely what has happened.  In the table below I show the change in the Rear Clear Politics composite polls in the seven tightest swing states across the last 10 days – that is, from shortly before the presidential debate to today.

State RCP Composite Oct. 3 RCP Today Obama Change
Ohio Obama +5 Obama +1.3 Obama -3.7
Florida Obama +2 Romney +2 Obama -4
Virginia Obama +3.5 Obama +.4 Obama -3.1
Colorado Obama +3.1 Romney +.7 Obama – 3.8
North Carolina Romney .8 Romney +3.3 Obama -4.1
Nevada Obama +5.2 Obama +1.2 Obama -4
New Hampshire Obama +6 Obama. +.7 Obama -5.3


As you can see, in his 10-day post-debate polling surge, Romney has gained an average of 4% across these seven battleground states, which collectively total 94 Electoral College votes.  This is a near-uniform surge, and it is consistent with what I have been harping on for so long now – a rising Romney tide will float all states’ polls, more or less.  (Keep in mind that the frequency of polling varies across each state.)   To be clear, there were signs that the race was tightening before the first presidential debate, but that event apparently served as a focusing point that pushed the race more rapidly toward where the forecast models, taken as a whole, suggested it should be.   I don’t expect that the Biden-Ryan debate will have nearly the impact on the state of the race as did the first presidential debate – but then, I didn’t expect the first debate to have quite the impact it did!   Still, if the post-debate instant polls are to be believed, Biden and Ryan fought to a draw.  That certainly was not the collective judgment of those who watched the presidential debate.

My larger point, however, is that I never put much stock in the notion that the Electoral College would serve as some type of firewall that would protect the President from a Romney surge in national polls.  In this regard, several of you have asked whether it is possible that Romney might win the national vote, but lose the Electoral College vote.  Sean Trende has an interesting analysis of that possibility here, and he concludes that while the possibility of such a split is higher this year, it is still exceedingly unlikely for reasons that I have discussed here before: historically, the popular and electoral college votes tend to line up very closely.

As evidence, Trende examines the last 15 presidential elections, and compares the winning candidate’s national popular vote margin of victory with his vote margin in the state that “gave” him his 270th Electoral College vote – the one that put him over the top, so to speak.  He finds that the difference in vote between the two measures is quite small – .9% on average.

Why is this important? Because Trende is essentially extending my logic regarding the link between national and state-level voting which, in turn, determines the Electoral College results.  I have argued that they tend to trend together.  Trende tries to measure that more directly by estimating how “biased” the Electoral College, which is based on state-level votes, is in any given election. To do so Trende looks at the difference between the national vote margin and the popular vote margin he winning candidate receives in the state that gives him the 270th vote.  That difference, he says, tells us how much the winning candidate was rewarded (or penalized) by Electoral College.

To follow Trende’s argument, let’s look at the current race and estimate the Electoral College bias, as of today. Romney currently leads in the national vote, according to the RCP composite average, by .7% (in an earlier version of this post I had that number wrong).   If we add up all his strong and leaning states based on polling so far, he is likely to win at least 181 Electoral College votes.   To pick up the additional electoral votes necessary to get to 270, he has to win some combination of the 12 or so battleground states.   Let us assume he wins the ones in which he leads as of today – Missouri, Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina. That gives him an additional 63 Electoral College votes – still 26 votes short of victory.  If we look at the remaining tossup states, he runs closest to Obama in Virginia, where he is down by .4%, New Hampshire at .7% and in Ohio by 1.3%.  Virginia has 13 E.C. votes, New Hampshire has 4, and Ohio 18.  Based on these biggest polling deficits, Ohio is the tipping point state – the one that if Romney wins he will go over 270 votes. Romney has to gain an additional 1.4% nationally to overcome Obama’s lead in Ohio.  Assuming a uniform vote swing, that gain would also give him victory in Virginia and New Hampshire as well and he would clinch the Electoral College.   Put another way, if you compare Romney’s current lead in the RCP national poll – .7% – with Obama’s lead in Ohio – 1.3%, using Trende’s logic the Electoral College, as of today, is biased toward Obama by 2%.   That’s a relatively large bias compared to the average of .9% that Trende finds for the previous 15 presidential elections.  It means that to avoid an Electoral College/popular vote split, Romney must win the popular vote by more than 2% (again, assuming a uniform polling swing between the national and state vote).

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions built into this argument, as Trende quite readily acknowledges, beginning with the idea that changes in national support are felt equally across the states.  More significantly, perhaps, it assumes the race will hold steady at its current configuration for the next four weeks.  However, as my table above indicates, it has been anything but steady in the last 10 days, and there are two more presidential debates to go.  There’s no sign that Romney’s surge has peaked, and he may very well cut further into Obama’s lead in Ohio and other battleground states.  On the other hand, Obama may regain his footing and retake the lead in the national polls, bringing them more in line with the state-level polling and thereby reducing the Electoral College “bias”.

This is all a very speculative exercise, of course – particularly this far out – but it is one way to think about the likelihood of a popular vote/Electoral  College discrepancy in outcomes. Taken as a whole, the political science forecast models project this to be a very tight race.  That certainly increases the probability that there will be a split. Note that Trende’s chart indicates that in 7 of the last 15 elections the Electoral College was biased against the popular vote winner.  Based on current national and swing state polling (remember – this could change), that’s the scenario that appears most likely this year – Romney does better in the national popular vote than he does in Ohio. Remember that in 2004 Bush also underperformed in Ohio, his tipping state, by .4% compared to his national vote total. Gore did so as well in Florida in 2000 by .5% – of course, he also lost the Electoral College vote despite winning the popular vote , while Bush held on to win.   Moreover, Obama over performed in the Electoral College tipping state of Colorado in 2008 relative to his national vote margin by a rather large 1.8%.  If the national vote is as close as the models project, and Obama is able to work similar magic in Ohio this time around by dint of a superior ground game, we could see a split.

But if this suggests the probability of a popular vote/Electoral College discrepancy is perhaps higher this year than in past elections, it still doesn’t mean it is likely to happen.  I still think it more probable that the state-level polls will continue to trend toward the national polls, thus reducing the possibility that we will see the winner of the popular vote lose the Electoral College.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed an even more exciting scenario – an Electoral College tie!

UPDATE: Romney’s RCP national lead has gone up since I originally wrote this, but he remains behind in Ohio, which further increases the Electoral College “bias” in favor of Obama.  I have to think the Ohio race will see more tightening. Stay tuned.

7 Responses to About That Electoral College “Firewall”

  1. Sheldon Sloan says:

    As I predicted some time ago, Matt, this election will not be close. I’ve seen the movie before and I know how it ends.

    Reagan was trailing Carter in October by approximately the same margins by which Romney trailed Obama just a few scant weeks/days ago.

    But race between the weak President challenged by the gifted Governor changed fairly quickly and the change stayed, then grew.

    The weak President then also had some chickens come home to roost (a term made more popular by the weak President’s ex-Mentor) in the Mideast, unraveling his Foreign Affairs credentials.

    That was a great movie and the ending was followed by eight wonderful years of leadership.

    Since sequels and remakes are the most successful and sought after projects in Hollywood, I’m betting we will see the sequel in just three weeks.

    I also agree with Mychal Massie that the candidate himself is about to crack. He does not like being challenged, or told he is wrong. He is not used to running with less money than his opponent, or rather less than a substantial surplus over his opponent. It is not going his way.

    The loveable, affable, smiling, joking Obama is about to disappear. Just watch.

    Don’t worry about a tie in the Electoral College or a disparity between the vote and the electoral results. This election will be a blowout. It will be 2010 in steroids.

  2. toto says:

    The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    Presidential elections don’t have to be this way.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions (including Vermont) possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  3. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Toto – How likely is it that Republican-leaning “red” states are going to support a reform plan that will likely shift the locus of electioneering to highly populated urban areas?

  4. toto says:

    With 9 jurisdictions, the bill has 49% of the 270 electoral votes necessary to go into effect.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls

    By state (Electoral College votes), by political affiliation, support for a national popular vote in recent polls has been:

    Alaska (3) — 66% among (Republicans), 70% among Nonpartisan voters, 82% among Alaska Independent Party voters
    Arkansas (6) — 71% (R), 79% (Independents).
    California (55) – 61% (R), 74% (I)
    Colorado (9) — 56% (R), 70% (I).
    Connecticut (7) — 67% (R)
    Delaware (3) — 69% (R), 76% (I)
    DC (3) — 48% (R), 74% of (I)
    Florida (29) — 68% (R)
    Idaho(4) – 75% (R)
    Iowa (6) — 63% (R)
    Kentucky (8) — 71% (R), 70% (I)
    Maine (4) – 70% (R)
    Massachusetts (11) — 54% (R)
    Michigan (16) — 68% (R), 73% (I)
    Minnesota (10) — 69% (R)
    Montana (3)- 67% (R)
    Mississippi (6) — 75% (R)
    Nebraska (5) — 70% (R)
    Nevada (5) — 66% (R)
    New Hampshire (4) — 57% (R), 69% (I)
    New Mexico (5) — 64% (R), 68% (I)
    New York (29) – 66% (R), 78% Independence, 50% Conservative
    North Carolina (15) — 89% liberal (R), 62% moderate (R) , 70% conservative (R), 80% (I)
    Ohio (18) — 65% (R)
    Oklahoma (7) — 75% (R)
    Oregon (7) — 70% (R), 72% (I)
    Pennsylvania (20) — 68% (R), 76% (I)
    Rhode Island (4) — 71% liberal (R), 63% moderate (R), 35% conservative (R), 78% (I),
    South Carolina (8) — 64% (R)
    South Dakota (3) — 67% (R)
    Tennessee (11) — 73% (R)
    Utah (6) — 66% (R)
    Vermont (3) — 61% (R)
    Virginia (13) — 76% liberal (R), 63% moderate (R), 54% conservative (R)
    Washington (12) — 65% (R)
    West Virginia (5) — 75% (R)
    Wisconsin (10) — 63% (R), 67% (I)
    Wyoming (3) –66% (R), 72% (I)

  5. Matthew Dickinson says:


    You don’t report the Democratic margins, nor the question wording. In fact, there are huge partisan differences in how Democrats and Republicans respond to these polls. Nor do most of the polls actually describe what your plan will do. Instead, many merely ask people if they support an electoral system in which the person who gets the most popular vote becomes president. For most people, that’s the system in place today! You present a very misleading use of polling data.

  6. Sheldon Sloan says:

    I quite agree with Matt.

    Figures lie and liars figure. Let me write the questions and I will guarantee the answer I want will result.

    That is why just looking at polls without raw data, including the exact questions asked, and in what order, can be misleading. Pollsters have “push” questions and after all the raw data is acquired, they then “massage” the answers by a process called “weighting”.

    Unless you also know which weighting is utilized, again, the answers can be misleading.

    I certainly wouldn’t want a popular vote to determine the election. We’ve done it this way for over 200 years; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  7. toto says:

    80% of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That’s more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly
    prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    A shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    Most Americans don’t care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state. . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it’s wrong for the candidate with the most popular votes to lose. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

    I included the link to the polls, for anyone interested, to find the specifics of each poll.

    By state (electoral college votes), by political affiliation, support for a national popular vote in recent polls has been:

    AK (3)- 78% among (Democrats), 66% among (Republicans), 70% among Nonpartisan voters, 82% among Alaska Independent Party voters, and 69% among Others.
    AR (6)- 88%(D), 71%(R), and 79%(Independents).
    CA (55)– 76%(D), 61%(R), and 74%(I)
    CO (9)- 79%(D), 56%(R), and 70%(I).
    CT (7)- 80%(D), 67%(R), and 71% (O)
    DE (3)- 79%(D), 69%(R), and 76%(I)
    DC (3)- 80%(D), 48%(R), and 74% of (I)
    ID(4)- 84%(D), 75%(R), and 75% (O)
    FL (29)- 88%(D), 68%(R), and 76% (O)
    IA (6)- 82%(D), 63%(R), and 77% (O)
    KY (8)- 88%(D), 71%(R), and 70%(I)
    ME (4)- 85%(D), 70%(R), and 73% (O)
    MA (11)- 86%(D), 54%(R), and 68% (O)
    MI (16)- 78%(D), 68%(R), and 73%(I)
    MN (10)- 84%(D), 69%(R), and 68% (O)
    MS (6)- 79%(D), 75%(R), and 75% (O)
    NE (5)- 79%(D), 70%(R), and 75% (O)
    NV (5)- 80%(D), 66%(R), and 68% (O)
    NH (4)- 80%(D), 57%(R), and 69%(I)
    NM (5)- 84%(D), 64%(R), and 68%(I)
    NY (29)- 86%(D), 66%(R), 78% Independence, 50% Conservative, 100% Working Families, and 7% (O)
    NC (15)- 75% liberal (D), 78% moderate (D), 76% conservative (D), 89% liberal (R), 62% moderate (R), 70% conservative (R), and 80%(I)
    OH (18)- 81%(D), 65%(R), and 61% (O)
    OK (7)- 84%(D), 75%(R), and 75% (O)
    OR (7)- 82%(D), 70%(R), and 72%(I)
    PA (20)- 87%(D), 68%(R), and 76%(I)
    RI (4)- 86% liberal (D), 85% moderate (D), 60% conservative (D), 71% liberal (R), 63% moderate (R), 35% conservative (R), and 78%(I),
    SD (3)- 84%(D), 67%(R), and 75% (O)
    UT (6)- 82%(D), 66%(R), and 75% (O)
    VT (3)- 86%(D); 61%(R), and 74% (O)
    VA (13)- 79% liberal (D), 86% moderate (D), 79% conservative (D), 76% liberal (R), 63% moderate (R), and 54% conservative (R), and 79% (O)
    WA (12)- 88% (D), 65% (R), and 73% (O)
    WV (5)- 87% (D), 75% (R), and 73% (O)
    WI (10)- 81% (D), 63% (R), and 67% (I)
    WY (3) – 77% (D), 66% (R), and 72% (I)


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