Skip to main content
ABC News
Did Democrats Get Lucky in the Electoral College?

President Obama won the Electoral College fairly decisively last year despite a margin of just 3.8 percentage points in the national popular vote. In fact, Mr. Obama would probably have won the Electoral College even if the popular vote had slightly favored Mitt Romney. The “tipping-point state” in the election — the one that provided Mr. Obama with his decisive 270th electoral vote — was Colorado, which Mr. Obama won by 5.4 percentage points. If all states had shifted toward Mr. Romney by 5.3 percentage points, Mr. Obama would still have won Colorado and therefore the Electoral College — despite losing the national popular vote by 1.5 points.

Contrast this Democratic advantage in the Electoral College with the Republican advantage in the House of Representatives. Democrats actually won slightly more votes in the House elections last year (about 59.5 million votes to the G.O.P.’s 58 million). Nevertheless, Republicans maintained a 234-201 majority in the House, losing only eight seats.

Democrats are quick to attribute the Republican advantage in the House to gerrymandering. This is certainly a part of the story. Republicans benefited from having an extremely strong election in 2010, giving them control of the redistricting process in many states. (Although Democrats were no less aggressive about creating gerrymandered districts in states like Illinois.)

However, much or most of the Republican advantage in the House results from geography rather than deliberate attempts to gerrymander districts. Liberals tend to cluster in dense urban centers, creating districts in which Democrats might earn as much as 80 or 90 percent of the vote. In contrast, even the most conservative districts in the country tend not to give more than about 70 or 75 percent of their vote to Republicans. This means that Democrats have more wasted votes in the cities than Republicans do in the countryside, depriving Democrats of votes at the margin in swing districts. Eliminating partisan gerrymandering would reduce the G.O.P.’s advantage in the House but not eliminate it.

But if this geographic principle holds true for the House, why doesn’t the same apply for the Electoral College?

Actually, it might hold true, if state boundaries were drawn a different way, and the states were required to have equal populations (as Congressional districts are). Neil Freeman, a graphic artist and urban planner, created just such a map in which the nation’s population was divided into 50 states of equal population. Mr. Freeman’s map also sought to keep metro areas within the same state — so, for instance, Kansas City and its suburbs would be entirely within the new state of “Nodaway” rather than divided between Kansas and Missouri.

Nate Cohn, of The New Republic, calculated what would have happened had the Electoral College been contested under Mr. Freeman’s map. He found that Mr. Romney probably would have won, by virtue of narrow victories in the new tipping-point states of Susquehanna (which consists of portions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland) and Pocono (formed from rural and suburban portions of present-day Pennsylvania and New York).

We must qualify Mr. Cohn’s answer because the margin would have been so close in these states that the election would have gone to a recount. Nonetheless, the new boundaries would have been enough to shift us from a map in which Democrats had an Electoral College advantage (relative to their share of the popular vote) to one in which it would have considerably helped Mr. Romney.

Mr. Cohn concludes from this that the Democrats’ apparent advantage in the Electoral College is “a product of luck.” If state boundaries were drawn just slightly differently, the Electoral College might harm them rather than help them, he argues.

I’ve seen a couple of objections to Mr. Cohn’s claim, one of which is that Mr. Obama’s strategy was dictated by the Electoral College as currently configured. Had the new states of Susquehanna and Pocono been the tipping-point states, instead of Colorado and Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama would have directed more resources there and might have won them as a result.

This is an intriguing argument, and an important one for thinking about the Electoral College in 2016 and beyond. If Mr. Obama’s apparent advantage in the Electoral College in 2008 and 2012 was the result of superior voter-targeting operations, then Democrats will maintain that advantage as long as they remain ahead in the voter-targeting game, but no longer.

Still, I doubt that this is enough to explain all of the difference between Mr. Freeman’s map and the actual Electoral College. Most empirical research on Mr. Obama’s “ground game” has found that it might have been worth an extra one to three percentage points in the swing states. In other words, Mr. Obama’s turnout operation might be enough to explain why the Electoral College slightly favored him rather than being essentially neutral. However, the inference we might make from Mr. Freeman’s map, and from the distribution of votes in Congressional districts, is that the Electoral College should not merely have been neutral but should actually have favored Republicans by several percentage points because of the concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas.

So why hasn’t the tendency of Democrats to cluster in urban areas harmed them in the Electoral College, as it has in the House of Representatives?

We can gain some insight by comparing the distribution of votes under the actual Electoral College to that which would have resulted under Mr. Freeman’s map. I’ve done that in the chart below. The chart orders the states and the District of Columbia based on what share of the vote Mr. Obama received in each one. (The percentages listed are two-way vote shares, meaning that they exclude votes for third-party candidates.)

There is one technicality to explain in these results. Although Mr. Freeman assigns most of the population of Washington, D.C., into a new state with portions of Virginia and Maryland, he preserves a small region consisting of the National Mall, major monuments and federal buildings “set off as the seat of the federal government”, as might be required under the
. This remaining part of the District of Columbia would still have three electoral votes despite having a permanent population of only about 33 people. (This is as best as I can infer from census data: the area corresponds to census tract 62.02 in the District of Columbia. Presumably, it would still be extremely Democratic, as its population might consist largely of Mr. Obama and his family, and high-level officials in his administration.)

That aside, the key facet of the chart is what happens in the upper-right corner, where the orange line (which represents how electoral votes would be allocated under Mr. Freeman’s system) diverges significantly from the black line (which reflects how they are allocated today). This reflects the results in the new states that are centered around Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, all of which would have given Mr. Obama at least 65 percent of their vote. Collectively, these “city-states” would represent about 65 electoral votes in Mr. Freeman’s map. By comparison, the only present-day states to have given Mr. Obama at least 65 percent of their vote were Hawaii and Vermont, which together have just seven electoral votes. The superfluous votes in these “city-states” wind up costing Democrats dearly in swing states like Pocono.

These large cities create much less electoral wastage for Democrats under the current map. Let’s consider each of them individually:

Philadelphia. Mr. Obama’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania (about 300,000 votes) was less than his margin of victory in the city Philadelphia alone (about 470,000 votes). Mr. Obama also netted about 100,000 votes from the Philadelphia suburbs. If Philadelphia and its suburbs seceded from the rest of Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama would win the city-state of Philadelphia overwhelmingly but would probably lose what remained of Pennsylvania.

Washington. The District of Columbia itself yields some wasted votes for Democrats. (Although it should be noted that it is overrepresented in the Electoral College: it has roughly one electoral vote per 100,000 voters, versus a national average of 0.4 electoral votes per 100,000 voters.) However, Washington’s suburbs have now also become Democratic, enough to swing Virginia to Mr. Obama in the last two elections. Thus, Democrats get considerable leverage out of the Washington metro area under the current Electoral College. Under Mr. Freeman’s map, Democrats would win the city-state centered around Washington overwhelmingly, but the regions just beyond it would mostly go Republican.

Chicago. This is roughly the same case as Philadelphia. Mr. Obama actually lost Illinois outside of Cook County, which consists of Chicago and its immediate suburbs. Thus, Democrats won all 20 electoral votes in Illinois. If Cook County separated from the rest of the state, by contrast, Mr. Obama would have won its roughly 10 electoral votes but lost the 10 belonging to the rest of Illinois.

San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mr. Obama won California by about 3 million votes last year. Of this advantage, about 2 million votes came from the San Francisco and Los Angeles metro areas, as Mr. Freeman defines them. California would still be Democratic-leaning without them, but Republicans would have some chance of competing instead of Democrats automatically having 55 electoral votes in their column. The G.O.P. would be further helped if California were broken apart into a total of four or five states, as Republicans could perform well in states centered around San Diego or the Central Valley.

New York. Mr. Obama won New York state by about eight percentage points, excluding votes from New York City itself. Without the five boroughs, therefore, New York state would be a blue-leaning swing state, similar to Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota, instead of a safely Democratic one.

In other words, under the current map, the votes in these big cities don’t wind up being redundant. They allow Democrats to win Pennsylvania, Illinois and Virginia when they would otherwise usually lose them. California and New York would still be Democratic-leaning even without San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, but Democrats get to win all their electoral votes whereas some regions would be competitive if they were subdivided. (The aforementioned swing state of Pocono consists partly of upstate New York under Mr. Freeman’s map, for example.)

I would also take objection to Mr. Cohn’s notion that the allocation of the United States into its 50 states should be thought of as a matter of “luck” — as though it reflects one draw from a randomly-generated pool of alternatives. Certainly, the boundaries of the states are quirky in some ways: Vermont, for instance, could easily have wound up as part of New York or New Hampshire.

But as books like “How The States Got Their Shapes” make clear, many other states have boundaries that were the result of careful deliberation by Congress. In particular, there was an effort to grant them roughly equal amounts of geographic territory, and to allow them to share access to important natural resources like the Great Lakes. (Most of the exceptions are in states that were brought into the nation whole-hog, like California and Texas, or the 13 original colonies.)

Here’s a thought experiment: if you could play geographer king, and were charged with dividing the United States into 50 political units with the goal of maximizing the nation’s collective economic well-being, what would your map look like? Would it be more like Mr. Freeman’s map, with the states divided based on equal populations and urban continuity, or would it be more our actual map of 50 states, however haphazard it might seem?

I don’t think this question has a simple answer, but there are some things to be said for the status quo.

Mr. Freeman’s map runs the risk of creating some small, urban states that are rich in human capital but lack natural resources, and some gargantuan, rural states that have the opposite problem. Under the actual map, most states have a reasonably good balance of urban and rural areas. The chart below reflects the percentage of voters in each state that are in urban, suburban and rural areas, according to 2008 exit polls. (The exit polls did not contain good data for Alaska and Hawaii, so I had to infer these separately.) Some 33 of the 50 states have somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of their populations in urban areas. Only one state (Nevada) has more than half its population in urban centers (Nevada occupies a large amount of territory, but most of its population is in Las Vegas). Only eight have under 10 percent of their population in urban areas (including New Jersey, which is otherwise suburban rather than rural).

This is not to say that the allocation of territory and resources into the states is perfect. From an economic standpoint, it’s hard to justify Delaware being its own state
, or California being one state instead of two or more. And the geographic size of a state would have been a better proxy for its economic potential in the early days of the Republic, when the United States was primarily an agrarian nation.

But it also shouldn’t be thought of as merely coincidental that Chicago, for example, happens to be attached to the territory that makes up the rest of Illinois. Seeking to equalize populations across the states would have made it harder for Congress to equalize other types of resources between them. Illinois “needs” to have a larger-than-average population because the alternative would be to create a rich city-state of Chicago (but one that lacked agricultural or mining resources) and a poor state of Downstate Illinois (which had lots of farmland but no large cities and no access to Lake Michigan).

As a byproduct of the Congress’s goal of equalizing geographic resources across the states, most states have reasonably diverse populations and economic interests, and the income distribution across the states is reasonably even. The poorest state in 2009 was Mississippi, which had a median household income of about $35,000, while the wealthiest was New Jersey (about $65,000). This range is narrow when compared to almost any other type of geographic division. More than 90 of the 435 Congressional districts, for instance, fell somewhere outside this range.

As a result, the Electoral College does not convey all that much advantage to rural voters versus urban ones, or wealthy voters versus poorer ones, and therefore does not provide all that much long-term advantage toward either party. The Democrats slightly benefited from the Electoral College in 2008 and 2012, but the opposite was true as recently as 2000.

The Electoral College may nevertheless be a flawed system in that some votes count much more than others. This is not intended as an enthusiastic defense of it, as much as a warning that attempts to reform it could wind up exacerbating its flaws (as opposed to eliminating it entirely, as would be my preference).

The best feature of the Electoral College is that it takes advantage of the 50 states. And those states got their shapes not by luck but by design.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.