By Bryan Cranston
This article is the first of a two-part feature, which aims to provide an understanding of the US presidential election process.
On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 2016 (Tuesday, 8 November 2016 [US time]), the voters of the United States will elect their forty-fifth president. We know there will be a new president because under the twenty-second amendment of the US Constitution, Barack Obama is ineligible to seek a third four-year term.
Although it is almost a year-and-a-half until Election Day, by analysing historical election results and trends in voter behaviour, the result is highly predictable. Despite this, presidential contenders will raise, and spend, billions of dollars in pursuit of a forgone conclusion.
The Electoral College
The President of the United States is elected via a highly complicated and unique system, known as the Electoral College (EC). Each of the USA’s fifty states has votes apportioned to the EC based on their state’s representation in the US Congress. The US Senate comprises 100 senators (two from each state), and the US House of Representatives comprises 435 members, apportioned by population, with each state having a minimum of one representative, regardless of population size. For example, California sends fifty-five delegates to Congress (two senators and fifty-three representatives); whilst Montana sends three delegates (two senators and one representative, known as ‘at-large’ because they represent the entire state). In addition, although the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) is not a state and has no voting representation in Congress, it is recognised in the Electoral College with the same number of EC votes as the smallest state (which is always three).
Whichever presidential candidate wins a plurality of the popular vote in each state (ie ‘first-past-the-post’), receives all of that state’s EC votes (with two exceptions). Example, if ‘Candidate A’ receives 40% of the popular vote in California, but that is more than any other candidate (in a multi-candidate field); then ‘Candidate A’ will win all of California’s 55 EC votes.
This ‘winner-take-all’ approach applies to forty-eight states, with the two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska. These states award one EC vote to whichever presidential candidate wins each House district; they then award their two senatorial EC votes to whoever wins a plurality of the statewide popular vote. Example, Nebraska has three congressional districts, which means the state has five EC votes. In 2008, the Republican nominee John McCain won the vote in two of the state’s districts, and received an overall vote in the state of 56.5%, whilst Barack Obama won one district. McCain was therefore awarded four EC votes (two ‘House’ EC votes, plus two ‘Senate” EC votes), and Obama was awarded one EC vote (one ‘House’ EC vote).
The EC therefore consists of 100 + 435 + 3 = 538.
To win the EC, a candidate needs a majority of the EC vote* (ie half plus one); thus, the magic number is 270 EC votes.
(* If no candidate achieves a majority of the EC, the election of the president is passed to the US House of Representatives. This has occurred twice: 1876 and 1888.)
270 to Win
Despite its confusing system, US politics is highly predictable, largely because of voter behaviour. If one looks at how each state has voted over the past four presidential elections (2000, 2004, 2008 and 20121), we have a good idea of what to expect in 2016. To do this, I have allocated each of the fifty stated plus the District of Columbia (D.C.), into three categories:
- Safe – has voted for the same party in each of the past four elections
- Likely – has voted for one party in three of the past four elections
- Toss-Up – has voted for each party on two occasions over the past four elections
In each of the past four elections, 18 states plus the District of Columbia, have voted for the Democratic candidate, for 242 EC votes, whilst 22 states have reliably voted Republican, for 180 EC votes (See Figure 1). It is inconceivable that any state that has consistently voted for one party in each of the past four elections would vote for the other party next year. The Democrats only need another 28 EC votes to win the presidency, whilst Republicans need to win another 90 EC votes. The Democratic Party therefore starts as the clear favourite for 2016.
Figure 1 – ‘Safe’ States – states that have voted for just one party in each of the past four elections
In this category, five states have voted Democrat in three of the past four elections, for 15 EC votes; whist two have voted the same way for the Republican candidate, for 26 EC votes. If we assume that the ‘likely’ states will continue to vote per their majority, then the running EC total is (See Figure 2):
Democrat 242 + 15 = 257
Republican 180 + 26 = 206
This means that almost a year-and-a-half out from Election Day, the Democratic candidate needs just 13 EC votes to win the presidency.
Figure 2 – ‘Safe’ plus ‘Likely’ States
Five states have voted for each party twice across the past four elections (EC votes in brackets): Colorado (9), Florida (29), Nevada (6), Ohio (18), and Virginia (13). These five states are where the 2016 presidential election will be concentrated.
What does all this mean?
The Democrat candidate does not need to win either Florida or Ohio to win the presidency, but the Republican candidate must win both! In fact, if the Democratic candidate wins Virginia, or Colorado and Nevada, then they win the election. The Republican candidate needs to win Florida and Ohio, plus Virginia, or Colorado and Nevada. One interesting historical note is that no Democrat has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.
The Democrats are heavy favourites to win Virginia, strong favourites to win Colorado, and better than average favourites to win Nevada.
Part two of this two-article feature will explain why voter demographics and voter behaviour is the key to understanding US elections, and why the Democrats are favoured to win at least three of these ‘toss-up’ states.