Imagine this scenario: a presidential campaign in which the campaigns focused their attention on big cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. More national TV advertising. And a race that depended far more on turning out one’s base than on expanding appeal to new voters.
That might be the reality if the United States decided to get rid of the Electoral College in presidential campaigns.
2016 is on track to be the fifth election in U.S. political history in which the candidate who wins the most votes is not the one elected president -- giving rise to another round of calls to abolish the Electoral College system. All told, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is currently leading President-elect Donald Trump by about 1.7 million votes nationally, despite Mr. Trump’s win in the Electoral College.
Mr. Trump, for his part, has responded to the criticism of the system by saying he would have won under a national popular vote system as well. In a meeting with the New York Times Tuesday, the president-elect said, “I’d rather do the popular vote from the standpoint — I’d think we’d do actually as well or better — it’s a whole different campaign. It’s like, if you’re a golfer, it’s like match play versus stroke play. It’s a whole different game.”
Still, he has tweeted about the “genius” of the Electoral College.
“The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play,” he wrote in one tweet. “Campaigning is much different!”
Given the complexity of actually changing the U.S. electoral system, it seems fairly unlikely that the country will get rid of the Electoral College anytime soon. But for the sake of argument, what would an Electoral College-less presidential election really look like?
There would be upsides and downsides to such a system -- for proponents and opponents alike, it’s hard to deny that the way a campaign conceives of its strategy and tactics would be drastically different.
Instead of a small number of national battleground states in which the candidates focus the majority of their attention, they would instead go to where their votes are -- even if those votes are in a deeply Democratic- or Republican-leaning state.
For Democrats, that would mean mining the urban centers they already depend on, but expanding those efforts even more to solidly Democratic states like California and New York. Out of Clinton’s approximately 64 million votes nationally, more than 7.5 million came from California alone. And Republicans would focus where their largest numbers of votes are: in some deeply GOP counties around the country, and likely on suburban areas where they’ve done well in the past.
“You would probably have legitimate field offices in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, San Francisco,” said Michael Trujillo, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. “You would basically be doing base turnout, and Republicans would be doing base turnout in Texas and the Deep South.”
In order to reach more voters across the country, candidates would likely turn to more national television advertising -- instead of what campaigns do now, which is essentially flood the airwaves in a small number of states and media markets.
“You’re going to see more of what I called national TV ads, as opposed to buying the Dayton, Ohio, market out,” Trujillo said. “So you would have seen more of the campaigns’ ads during the baseball playoffs ... it would have been less newsworthy and more sort of the way campaigns would have been run.”
On the flip side, smaller states that currently get a lot of attention might see candidates start to make themselves scarce. Mr. Trump spent part or all of 43 days in Iowa during the course of the 2016 campaign, for example, and Clinton spent 49 days there. If the campaigns were focused on solely the popular vote, Iowa’s approximately 3 million residents would see far less of the candidates after the primaries were over.
Mr. Trump alluded to this aspect of the Electoral College in his talk with the New York Times. “What it does do is it gets you out to see states that you’ll never see otherwise. It’s very interesting. Like Maine. I went to Maine four times. I went to Maine...because everybody was saying you can get to 269 but there is no path to 270,” adding that the calculation was ultimately “false,” given that his electoral tally at this point exceeds 300 (Michigan has not yet been called).
“Smaller states are going to see much less of the candidate,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Iowa. “You get rid of that system and you go to a national popular vote and they’re going to campaign where the votes are.”
It’s hard to say how campaigning in 2016 would have been different had the end goal been to win the popular vote, not the Electoral College. Trump and his allies have suggested that the GOP businessman could have made inroads in Democratic states had they put more time and resources there.
“If we had total vote mattering, we would have competed in California,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CBS’ “Face the Nation” earlier this month. “And then -- we would probably have picked up at least 2 million votes just by competing.”
Trujillo pointed to Republicans’ recent attempts to win statewide in California, like Meg Whitman’s unsuccessful $140 million gubernatorial effort in 2010, to dispute the idea that a more concerted Republican campaign in California could significantly chip away at Democrats’ massive vote lead there.
“Donald Trump could have done whatever he wanted in California and Hillary would still be president” under a popular vote system, he said. “There wouldn’t have been enough visits for him in California for him to close the deficit.”
In fact, an electoral system based on the popular vote would also encourage candidates to further play to their respective bases rather than actually trying to persuade new voters.
The reason “battleground states” have earned that term is because they really are often very evenly split between parties -- and the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College gives candidates incentives to work to reach out to undecided voters and tip the scales in their favor in those states.
“There’s a real sort of persuasion campaign that goes on to win those votes,” Sterzenbach said. “I think what you’d see a lot of if we just had a national popular vote is the candidates might be playing to their base -- because that might be enough.”
The idea of a truly national presidential campaign would also, in theory, mean already well-known individuals like actors or athletes with high name ID among the American electorate would have a built-in head start.
Then again, a businessman best known for his TV show “The Apprentice” won this time around, noted longtime GOP strategist Mary Matalin.
“The purpose of the electoral college is to prevent tyranny of the majority, to protect minority rights,” Matalin said. “Which is why this specious campaign is so ironic.”
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