How do electoral math differ from popular votes?

After the 2000 election one might think that everyone in the world understands how an American president is elected.  For those who don’t remember or don’t understand, electors are allocated to each state based on how many congressmen and senators that state has.  For example, South Dakota has one congressman and two senators, and is therefore entitled to 3 electoral votes.  Therefore, with the total number of congressmen being 435 and there being 100 senators, along with three electors allocated by Constitutional amendment to Washington D.C., there are total of 538 electors.

So how far off from the popular vote could an electoral vote get?  To figure this out, you need to know how many voters there are in each state and the number of electors per state.  270 electors can be gotten by winning evenly 50% of the votes in the 11 largest states in the Union.  If the loser were to take 50%-1 vote in those states, plus all the votes in the other states, using 2008 voter information, the winner would need only 43 million votes, while the loser could have over 110 million, or  71% of all the votes.  This is how President Bush won the election 2001 but lost the popular vote.

The electoral system almost always produces less dramatic results that do not mirror the popular vote.  Let’s look at a few percentages:

>Year Who Winner Electoral Votes Loser Electoral Votes Percentage Electoral Win/Loss Winner Popular Votes Loser Popular Votes Percentage Popular Win/Loss
1904 Roosevelt v. Parker 336 140 70.6%/39.4 7,630,457 5,083,880 56.4%/37.6%
1908 Taft v. Bryan 321 162 66%/34% 7,678,395 6,408,984 51.6%/43.0%
1912 Wilson v. Roosevelt 435 88 82%/17% 6,296,284 4,122,721 41.8%/27.4%
1916 Wilson v. Hughes 277 254 52%/48% 9,126,868 8,548,728 49.2%/46.1%
1920 Harding v. Cox 404 127 76%/24% 16,144,093 9,139,661 60.3%/34.1%
1924 Collidge v. Davis/Follette 382 149 72%/28% 15,723,789 13,217,948 54%/45.4
1928 Hoover v. Smith 444 87 84%/16% 21,427,123 15,015,464 58.2%/40.8%
1932 Roosevelt v. Hoover 472 59 89%/11% 22,281,277 15,761,254 57.4%/39.7%
1936 Roosevelt v. Landon 523 8 98%/2% 27,752,648 16,681,862 61%/37%
1940 Roosevelt v. Wilkie 449 82 85%/15% 27,313,945 22,347,744 54.7%/44.7%
1944 Roosevelt v. Dewey 432 99 81%/19% 25,612,916 22,017,929 53.4%/45.9%
1948 Truman v. Dewey/Thurmond 303 228 57%/43% 24,179,347 23,167,222 49.6%/47.5%
1952 Eisenhauer v. Stevenson 442 89 83%/17% 34,075,529 27,375,090 55%/44%
1956 Eisenhauer v. Stevenson 457 73 86%/14% 35,579,180 26,028,028 57%/24%
1960 Kennedy v. Nixon 303 219 56.5%/40.9% 34,220,911 34,108,157 49.7%/49.6%
1964 Johnson v. Goldwater 486 52 90%/10% 43,127,041 27,175,754 61%/39%
1968 Nixon v. Humphrey/Wallace 301 191 + 96 56%/36%/18% 31,783,783 41,172,957 (total) 43.4%/56.2%
1972 Nixon v. McGovern 520 17 97%/3% 47,168,710 29,173,222 61%/38%
1976 Carter v. Ford 297 240 55%/45% 40,831,881 39,148,634 50.1%/48.0%
1980 Reagan v. Carter 489 49 91%/9% 43,903,230 35,480,115 50.7%/41.0%
1984 Reagan v. Mondale 525 13 98%/2% 54,455,472 37,577,352 59%/41%
1988 Bush v. Dukakis 426 111 79%/21% 48,886,597 41,809,476 53.4%/45.7%
1992 Clinton v. Bush 370 168 69%/31% 44,909,806 39,104,550 43%/37.5%
1996 Clinton v. Dole 379 159 70%/30% 47,401,185 39,197,469 49.2%/40.7%
2000 Bush v. Gore 271 266 50.4%/49.6% 50,456,002 50,999,897 47.9%/48.4%
2004 Bush v. Kerry 286 251 53%/47% 62,040,610 59,028,444 50.7%/48.3%
2008 Obama v. McCain 365 173 68%/32% 69,456,897 59,934,814[ 53%/46%

In this table, the closest the popular and electoral votes come together is in 1916, although Bush v. Kerry comes close.

So what do we learn from all of this? I see two key messages:

  • The nature of the electoral voting system wildly distorts popular will in favor of each state getting at least some voice.  This was, after all, the reason for its design.
  • National polls are, at best, a finger in the wind, and may be entirely misleading.

What do you think of the electoral system?

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