Who would benefit if Electoral College is changed?
By now you've likely heard about the ideas floating around in some blue states to change their electoral vote rules -- going from winner-take-all to allocating them by congressional district (CD) instead. They're changes that most agree would heavily favor Republican presidential candidates (at least in the near-term) in places like Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, because Republicans carry a lot more districts in these states, even as they lose the state overall.
But if you don't follow every twist and turn of congressional districting (and, really, we couldn't blame you) then that last point might sound counter-intuitive: why don't congressional districts in a state break the same as a state's overall partisan balance? Why, exactly, would this rule change shift things so dramatically toward Republicans? Whether or not it really happens, we thought this was a good time to leave aside the debate and take a quick look at the numbers that drive this -- how the districts break down.
Democratic congressional districts tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic, while Republican-held seats are not as lopsided for Republicans. This spreads Republican voting power over more districts, even if they're outnumbered statewide. Statewide, Democrats run up big margins in a few CDs, much as they do in a handful of counties, that carry them to a statewide win. This tends to be true nationwide. In our partisanship table below, we show the patterns.
On average, our partisan index (average party vote across multiple recent races) in Democratic-held congressional seats is +14 points; i.e., the average Democrat should run in this district with about 64 percent in most years. Meanwhile the partisan index in GOP-held seats is a comfortable, but not nearly as large, +8 points; the average Republican CD would be expected to go 58 percent Republican in most years. In 2012 in particular, the average winning Democratic candidate got 67 percent of the two-party vote, the average winning GOP candidate got 62 percent in contested races.
Changing to district allocations means that this difference doesn't matter, though. Like World Series games, a win is a win and it doesn't matter by how much.
It isn't looking too likely to happen in Michigan, for example, but it's a good illustration of the point. In 2012 President Obama won the state and happened to get more votes ("won") within 5 of 14 congressional districts. A plan that had instead allocated electoral votes by CD (with a bonus two to the statewide winner) would have given Romney more of Michigan's EV's, 9 to 7. In Virginia, which Obama also won statewide, Romney would have come away with 7 EVs and Obama, 6, under a CD-based plan. (If the bonus two went to the winner of more districts and not the statewide vote winner as some have offered, it would have been an even bigger reversal of Romney 9 and Obama 4.)
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