Electoral Incentives

by Russ Roberts on October 14, 2004

in Politics

There is a chance this year that the nation will again have a winner of the Presidential election who loses the popular vote. Maybe we should expect it to happen with increasing frequency. We live in a time when the candidates and their handlers have far greater information about voter behavior and preferences than ever before. The candidates spend little or no time and money in California and Texas. Why waste it in states you have no chance of carrying or don’t have to worry about losing? But with increased knowledge of voters, campaigns pull money out of smaller states as well to focus time and money on better prospects. Right now, there are supposedly only ten states left in play.

This means that there is an increasing chance that the winning candidate will win a few key states narrowly while getting blown out in others.

Winning the presidency without a majority of the votes cast or even a plurality disturbs people because they have an almost religious respect for majority rule. If it does happen again this year, a lot of people will want to junk the electoral college. They will ignore the incentives I’ve just described.

Is the electoral college a good thing? The standard argument is that it gets candidates to spend time in smaller states. Otherwise they’d spend a lot more time in New York, California, Texas and Florida fishing for votes where the fish are more plentiful. But in today’s blue-red divide, the electoral college doesn’t encourage candidates to spend more time in Wyoming or Rhode Island. They’re effectively off the table anyway. And it doesn’t reduce the time in New York and Texas. It reduces it drastically because support in those states is so one-sided. The result is that candidates spend the most time in the largest states that are still up for grabs. This year that’s Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Getting rid of the electoral college will swing power back to toward California, New York and Texas. And we’d get more national and fewer regional ads.

In Colorado, voters will be voting on whether to split the state’s nine electoral votes according to the proportion received in the popular vote. That will mean that Colorado will almost certainly go 5-4 for one candidate or the other. It would essentially make Colorado irrelevant.

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