Many Republicans I have talked to seem to believe electing the president by a national popular vote would put Republicans at a disadvantage in presidential elections. However, when I respond to their objections with actual vote totals and facts about elections, they almost always concede that a national popular vote system is at worst neutral to, or might even benefit, Republicans. Please carefully consider the following, as I believe it all to be true.
The nationwide popular vote is not skewed against Republicans
Since 1932 the combined popular vote by party for President was a virtual tie: 745,407,082 for the Democrats and 745,297,123 for the Republicans. In fact, during my lifetime, Republicans have done very well in the national popular vote compared to Democrats. Anyone who believes that the United States is a center-right country should have no political concern about trusting the American people to make the right choice.
The small states do not create a Republican political advantage in the Electoral College
Many believe that the Republicans gain from the fact that each state receives two electoral votes beyond what their population alone would justify. However, the historical fact is that the 13 smallest states (those with 3 or 4 electoral votes) have been evenly divided by party for the past six presidential elections. Six of the smallest states (Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.) have almost invariably voted Democratic since 1988, while the other six non-battleground small states (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota) have almost invariably voted Republican. New Hampshire is the one closely divided swing state among the 13. In fact, Kerry won more electoral votes than Bush (21 versus 19) did from the 12 least-populous states despite the fact that Bush won considerably more popular votes in these states (650,421 votes for Bush compared to 444,115 for Kerry). The reason is that the red states are redder than the blue states are blue.
Similarly, in the 25 smallest states, the Democratic and Republican popular vote in 2008 was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).
The presidential election will not become a race for a dozen states with big cities
While it is true that the 12 biggest states have over half the nation’s population and over half the electoral votes, when you actually look at presidential vote totals, you see that there is a virtual tie among the parties in the 12 biggest states.
In 2004, 6 of the 12 biggest states went Republican (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia), while the other six went Democratic (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey). Kerry got 34,784,178 votes in the 12 biggest states versus Bush’s 34,539,521, a difference of only 244,657 out of 69 million votes. Kerry’s slender margin in the 12 biggest states was then overwhelmed by Bush’s national popular vote margin of 3,012,171 (out of 122 million votes cast).
None of the biggest states are as Democratic as many people think. The highest percentage achieved by either party in the 12 biggest states in 2004 was Bush’s 62% margin in Texas (which alone generated a bigger popular-vote margin for Bush than Kerry received from far-larger California).
Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senator have won statewide in all 12 of the biggest states in recent years.
Moreover, the big cities inside the 12 biggest states are not as big or as dominant as many people think. Big cities do not, for example, control California elections, as evidenced by the historical fact that governors Reagan, Deukmejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger never carried Los Angeles, San Francisco, or other big cities in California. Similar examples of Republicans winning in big states, despite losing the big cities, can be easily cited in every other big state.
The populations of the 50 largest cities together constitute only 19% of the nation’s population. To put that into perspective, Arlington, Texas is the nation’s 50th largest city (at about 363,000). The fact is that the United States is predominantly a suburban, exurban, and rural country.
The small states would gain (not lose) influence
The reality is that small states are the most disadvantaged under the current state-by-state, winner-take-all system.
18 of the 25 smallest states received no attention at all from presidential campaigns. Only 4 of the 25 received more than two post-convention campaign events, namely New Hampshire (12 events), New Mexico (8 events), Nevada (12 events), and Iowa (7 events). The 25 smallest states together (with 155 electoral votes) received 43 post-convention campaign events. In contrast, Ohio (with only 20 electoral votes) received 62 of the 300 post-convention campaign events.
The 12 smallest non-competitive states have a combined population of 11 million. Because of the bonus of two electoral votes every state receives, these 12 small states have 40 electoral votes. Coincidentally, the closely divided battleground state of Ohio has 11 million people. Ohio (with “only” 20 electoral votes) received 62 of the 300 post-convention visits in the 2008 presidential election, whereas the 12 smallest states received only three. The winner-take-all rule makes the 11 million people in Ohio crucial in presidential races, while rendering the 11 million people in the nation’s 12 smallest states irrelevant. A national popular vote would make a vote cast in a small state as important as a vote cast in Ohio.
California would not be the only state that matters
Seven western states (Arizona, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming), with only about a third of California’s population, generated almost the same popular vote margin (1,219,595) for George W. Bush in 2004 as John Kerry’s margin in California (1,235,659). Nonetheless, John Kerry received 55 electoral votes from California, while Bush received only 33 from the seven western states.
Fraud would not dictate the outcome of a national popular vote election
Fraud is, in fact, a bigger threat in the current system. In the current system, a handful of fraudulent votes in a closely divided battleground state (say Wisconsin) will effectively steal ten electoral votes. Those same fraudulent votes would have very little impact on a national vote total. National Popular Vote mitigates the impact of fraud on presidential elections.
…But Al Gore would have been president under a national popular vote
Now we’re getting to the real objection. Let’s remember that weeks before the 2000 election the Bush team believed it was likely we (meaning the Bush campaign) would win the popular vote and lose in the Electoral College. The campaign distributed talking points and planned a talk radio effort to challenge the central unfairness of the winner-take-all system and state why the winner of the popular vote should always be elected president.
Of course, if the entire campaign had been run on the basis of national popular vote, President Bush’s campaign effort would have been very different. In a national election, contested in all fifty states and under a national popular vote, President Bush’s culturally conservative message would have likely carried the day. His campaign could have devoted its time to driving turnout in states where his message had resonance, rather then eking out small numbers of votes in battleground states.
Nationally recognized in the spheres of politics, public affairs, public relations and market research, Pat directed the highly successful Midwest grassroots campaigns to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts. He is a senior advisor to National Popular Vote.