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Obama's Swing State Salvation?

This column was written by Josh Patashnik.

There's a strain of logic in recent presidential campaign discourse that goes something like this: Though Barack Obama sports a modest lead over John McCain in national polling, his apparent weakness in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida could lead to a loss in the electoral college even if he wins the national popular vote by a wide margin. But his salvation could lie in picking someone from one of those states, like Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell or Ohio governor Ted Strickland, as his running mate.

At first glance, it seems like a compelling argument. On closer inspection, though, it's fundamentally misguided -- on both counts. It's highly unlikely Obama will win the popular vote while losing the electoral college -- in fact, it's all but impossible unless the popular vote is exceptionally close, as it was in 2000. But, on the off-chance Obama's trouble in those states does end up looming large, history gives little reason to believe that putting Rendell or Strickland on the ticket would do much to help.

At the moment, Electoral College obsession is once again overtaking the punditocracy, so please forgive me if I'm pointing out the obvious: The Electoral College very rarely matters, and our current fixation on it is mostly a product of memories from the Bush-Gore race. Before that year, only once in American history - 1888 -- had a candidate won a popular-vote plurality while legitimately losing the presidency in the Electoral College. (The election of 1876 doesn't count, and in 1824 the vote went to the House of Representatives.) In both 1888 and 2000, moreover, the national popular vote was extremely close--a margin of 0.8 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Once the national popular-vote margin gets much greater than that, it quickly becomes prohibitively difficult for a losing candidate to prevail in the Electoral College. Take, for example, the oft-heard refrain that a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have handed John Kerry the election, even though Kerry lost by 2.4 percent of the vote nationally. This is true in a literal sense, but meaningless from a practical standpoint. For one thing, you can just as easily play the reverse game: A swing of 6,000 votes in Wisconsin or 5,000 votes in New Hampshire would have made George W. Bush the victor regardless of the outcome in Ohio.

More importantly, though, votes don't just spontaneously shift in one key state. A major insight from the 2004 campaign, on the part of strategists like Bush's Matthew Dowd, is that votes are determined less by one's physical location than by factors like demography and lifestyle choices: A Bush voter in Ohio looks like a Bush voter in California. As Bill Bishop argues in his recent book, "The Big Sort," as Republicans and Democrats diverge from each other in their living patterns, they increasingly resemble their partisan compatriots across state borders.

As a result, any event or trend capable of producing a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio from Bush to Kerry would almost surely have had some effect outside of Ohio. If the effect had been distributed proportionally throughout the country, a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would correspond to a swing of around 1.5 million votes nationally -- enough to erase Bush's 3-million-vote lead in the popular vote. Or, in 2000, suppose Al Gore's margin of victory in the national popular vote had been 1.5 percent, rather than 0.5. That amounts to a net gain for Gore of more than 1 million votes, and about 60,000 in Florida, if distributed equally throughout the country. Just a fraction of that figure would have given him the presidency, recount or no recount.

For this reason, political scientists tend to discount the likelihood of an Electoral College-popular vote split. "The consensus is that there's a very narrow band where a split is really even possible -- just a one- or two-percent margin at most," says Daron Shaw, an Electoral College expert at the University of Texas.

Granted, at the margin, Obama currently looks stronger in some swing states (Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia) than in others with more electoral votes (Ohio, Florida). But to lose the Electoral College while winning the popular vote by any significant amount would take a more contorted distribution of votes than that. "It would require all of the battleground states to be very disconnected from the national trends," Shaw says. "It's just not realistic."

It's always tempting to believe this election will be different -- maybe Obama will prove uniquely able to win huge victories in blue states and "waste" votes cutting into McCain's margin in red states, while underperforming in battleground states. But this speculation has been wrong before. In 2000, for instance, many observers thought Bush would win the popular vote fairly easily by running up the score in the South, but would lose the Electoral College.

Needless to say, it didn't turn out that way, and, despite breathless predictions to the contrary, it probably won't this time. As in 2000, the doomsayers rely on overblown regional stereotypes and underestimate the degree of nationalization in the electorate. If massive support from college-educated voters and record black turnout drive up Obama's totals in non-battlegrounds like Connecticut and Mississippi, there are enough of those voters in Michigan and Florida to put Obama over the top. Likewise, if Obama continues to struggle among working-class whites, that will cut into his popular-vote margin in blue states. Pundits may think Massachusetts is all Cambridge and Ohio is all Youngstown, but it's just not so.

Of course, it's certainly possible that the election will be so close as to make a split conceivable. So Obama had better pick a Rendell or a Strickland as V.P., right? Well, no. Summing up the work of the political scientists who have explored the question, David W. Romero of the University of Texas at San Antonio concluded in a 2001 paper that "vice presidential candidates have no influence on the voters' choice for president." Events like the announcement of a running mate or the vice presidential debates can produce a momentary blip in polls--like the ten-point bounce Kerry got when he selected John Edwards--but it soon disappears.

There's little evidence vice presidential candidates make a difference even in their home states. A 1989 analysis by Robert Dudley and Ronald Rapoport in the American Journal of Political Science found that, on average, a vice-presidential candidate improves his ticket's performance in his home state by only a statistically insignificant 0.3 percent. (Presidential candidates, by contrast, get a sizable four-percent boost in their home states.) Their result has been borne out in the years since -- remember when Edwards was supposed to put North Carolina in play for Kerry? They lost by 12 points. What's more, the effect tends to be strongest in small states -- Edmund Muskie pretty clearly put the Democratic ticket over the top in Maine in 1968 -- but nonexistent in large states where retail politics count for less. Even the edge LBJ supposedly gave JFK in Texas is debatable: It was a heavily Democratic state, and Kennedy fared well in other Southern states with similar demographics.

These questions are part of a larger debate in political science: Can the outcomes of presidential campaigns shift significantly as a result of campaign quirks, or are they determined largely by underlying economic and political fundamentals? For the most part, the latter view has won out -- and it suggests that the Democratic nominee is headed for a relatively comfortable win. Of course, the candidacy of Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter) makes 2008 the first election that won't have two white male candidates, and therefore something of a historical anomaly. The race could end up being a 2000-style nail-biter -- and, in that case, there's a small possibility that electoral math and running mates will make a difference. But if things do play out as they have for decades, a lot of hyperventilating pundits will have egg on their faces.
By Josh Patashnik
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