Electoral Math (US Election Update)

Written on October 3, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Winston Churchill famously observed that democracy was the worst form of government ever invented, except for all the others.

That’s true, but within the mantle of democracy, there is considerable variation. Among the different forms that have been articulated ever since democracy was rediscovered in the 18th century by a few drunken philosophes, can we safely nominate the US system as having one of the most arcane? As we all know, in the US election of 2000, the candidate who won the election in constitutional terms, Bush, lost the election in popular terms. Now, you might figure that when the candidate who wins the most votes does not win the election, there would be some kind of backlash, questioning, or debate about a system that so imperfectly reflects the will of its citizenry. Not so. The Electoral College, which is the body that officially elects the US president, is enshrined in the US constitution. It is therefore effectively unchangeable.

Thus, in tight electoral contests, the path to the White House is distilled down to the decisions made by voters in a few states. Thus California, a state that has more people and a bigger economy than my country Canada, will play an insignificant role in November’s election. The same applies to New York, Texas, Illinois – indeed, fully two thirds of the states, big and small, which are considered safe for one party or the other.

US Electoral math, therefore, is about crafting a strategy in just a handful of critical states that do not enjoy a sufficiently dominant identity-politics to reduce themselves to electoral insignificance. Snatch enough votes in swing states like Florida, Ohio, or Colorado and your man will win the election.

This peculiar feature of the US system explains the otherwise inexplicable choice by the McCain campaign to name the clearly unqualified Sara Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate. In several recent interviews, Palin has amply demonstrated that there is a limit to how far small-town hokum and folksy charm can take you. It may win you the gubernatorial race in Alaska; but as a prospective VP, the voters demand a higher standard.

So why on earth would McCain have made such a spectacularly poor choice, one that seems destined to join the ranks  of momentously bad decisions like New Coke or Napoleon’s invasion of Russia?

The answer, I believe, is in the tactical considerations of US electoral math. Although it has been somewhat forgotten now in the clutter of the ongoing campaign, a principal theme this summer was one of disunity and discord in the Democratic Party, driven by a media narrative that many supporters of Hillary Clinton were supposedly very disaffected and would not be able to support the nomination of Barack Obama as the party flag-bearer. The choice of Palin, therefore, seems to me the product of a narrow tactical thinking. Nominate someone who could pull enough of those disaffected voters to the Republicans in tight races in the swing states. Given the tight race between Obama and McCain, the shift of only a few votes – several hundred thousand perhaps – could be decisive in bringing about victory. 

This is the peril of the US system. It encourages a narrow tactical focus; the larger ramifications are – clearly – too easily overlooked.

The selection of Palin has had the reverse effect. Not only can she not sway former Clinton supporters, she is driving away support for the Republican ticket. And in a fine ironic twist, her selection has changed the electoral math. Where a few weeks ago, the election looked as if it was again going to be decided by a few voters in Ohio or New Mexico, now suddenly a host of formerly safe Republican states are up for grabs: Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, for example. Indeed, Sara Palin appears destined to achieve for the Democrats something they have been manifestly incapable of achieving for themselves: a broad victory. Not only has her selection benefited the Democrats in the presidential race, but it appears as if several Senate and House contests could tilt Democratic as well.

The existence of the electoral college makes the math important. But momentum is even more so. In reaching for such an obviously unqualified choice, the Republicans have inadvertently triggered a massive wave of "anti-momentum" (if I can be permitted the phrase). The Republicans have inadvertently hobbled themselves entering the final leg of the race.

The math made them do it.


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