Have Republicans decided they can’t win swing states?

There’s a hot, new movement in Republican circles.

It’s an effort to change how electoral votes are allocated in swing states and states that recently have been swing states.

And the fact that it’s being seriously considered suggests that they don’t think they can win those states in future presidential races.

There are discussions about adopting the Maine/Nebraska model, in which the candidate winning the most votes in a congressional district wins an electoral vote for that district and then the candidate who wins the most votes in the state wins two electoral votes.

One variant is to have electoral votes awarded one-by-one to the winner of congressional districts but then an additional two electoral votes go to the candidate who won the most congressional districts in the state.

Either of these schemes would benefit Republicans – quite a lot

In 2012, if such a system was in place nationwide, Romney would have won, despite receiving 5 million fewer votes than Obama.

That’s right, even with getting but 47% of the vote to Obama’s 51%, Romney would have been elected president.

And, if this was done just in key swing states now controlled at the state level by Republicans, the 2012 race would have been much closer. As for 2016, this system would vastly increase the probability that a Republican could capture the White House while losing the popular vote.

The major reason is the gerrymandering that was done after the 2010 elections.

As Alan Abramowitz explains regarding Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin:

If these six battleground states were to adopt the congressional district method of awarding electoral votes, it would not guarantee a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election but it would make such a victory much more likely. That’s because the congressional district lines in these states were gerrymandered by Republican legislatures following the 2010 census to give their party a huge advantage. As a result, even though Obama carried all six states in 2012, it appears that Romney carried 61 House districts in these states to only 33 for Obama. Romney appears to have carried 16 of 27 House districts in Florida, 9 of 14 House districts in Michigan, 12 of 16 House districts in Ohio, 12 of 18 House districts in Pennsylvania, 7 of 11 House districts in Virginia and 5 of 8 House districts in Wisconsin.

Each is a state in which Obama got quite a lot more votes than Romney. Yet Romney would have won a substantial majority of the electoral votes, since he carried so many more congressional districts.

Some Michigan Republicans had thought of doing this before 2012, but they didn’t pursue it then because they thought it could hurt Romney. As one state legislator said, “It got no traction last year. There were people convinced Romney was going to win and this might take (electoral) votes from him.”

If it’s ok in Maine, why not elsewhere?

First, while Maine has a system for dividing electoral votes, there hasn’t been the history of gerrymandering that exists elsewhere and there are only two congressional districts.

Thus it’s very unlikely that Maine could end up in a situation where most people vote for one candidate but another wins most electoral votes. (Actually, with only two congressional districts, an electoral vote-popular vote mismatch would be impossible. The state-wide winner gets two electoral votes and would surely win one of the two districts.)

Second, the distribution of populations in these swing states and the intense gerrymandering make it very possible that the candidate who wins the most electoral votes loses the popular vote.

Michigan is a good example. Obama won the state with a 10% margin in the popular vote and with a lead of over 450,000 votes. Yet under the proposed scheme, he would have won fewer electoral votes than Romney. That is fundamentally unfair and undemocratic.

Third, if electoral votes were awarded proportionally by population that would be fairer, but no one is suggesting this.

Congressional district electoral vote allocations likely won’t mirror voter preferences. Instead, they’d reflect whatever state legislatures did to set the district lines for their party’s political advantage.

However, as some have suggested, this system could end up hurting Republicans in unanticipated ways.

One is that any Republican governor adopting this in a swing state would face a big backlash when up for re-election in 2014. Imagine the Michigan incumbent supporting a system where the loser by ten percentage points would win most electoral votes. That would sting him, big time.

Another is that presidential campaigns would put a lot of focus on areas of the state which had gotten little before. Imagine the remarkable campaign organization Obama developed, aimed at swing congressional districts. That could have a major impact on congressional and state and local races.

So we’ll see how far this goes.

Right now it gives off the whiff of desperation, as if those proposing it believe they are no longer competitive in the swing states.

Rather than playing with the rules of the game, perhaps Republicans could consider how they might appeal to and win the votes of most voters.

Additional note: That this is motivated solely by an attempt for partisan advantage can be seen in this comment by GOP Chair Reince Priebus: “I think it’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at.” Priebus only wants such a system adopted in states that Democratic presidential candidates have won, which have Republican-controlled state governments.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.