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"Popular Vote" Claims Just A Myth

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The 2008 presidential contest is shaping up to be a potential nail-biter, with polls showing voters nearly evenly split between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Because of how tight the race is, we are once again faced with the possibility of the winner of the electoral college "losing the popular vote". This is causing concern on the part of many analysts and pundits, who recall one of the controversies of the 2000 election: claims that George W. Bush wasn't the real winner of the election because he "lost the popular vote". Some are likewise saying that if McCain or Obama win the electoral college without "winning the popular vote" that the result will be "illegitimate" or the new president will "lack a mandate".

Even knowledgeable observers seem to have come to accept "winning the popular vote" as some sort of standard, valid means of assessing voter preferences. For example, Nate Silver, the skilled statistician of the election modeling site fivethirtyeight.com, recently raised the issue of what the impact might be of a tied electoral college result being decided by a Democrat-controlled Congress, in the event that John McCain "won the popular vote".

My problem with all of this is betrayed by my use of quotation marks above: "winning the popular vote" doesn't mean what most people think it does, and the conclusions that people draw from this bogus metric are myths. Worse, the claims made about the popular vote not only are incorrect, they are very damaging to the electoral process and how the nation assesses election outcomes.

Were the Bronx Bombers "Cheated"?

The year is 1960, and the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates face off against the feared New York Yankees in the World Series. The Pirates take the first game in a squeaker, 6-4, before being blown out in the next two games, the Yankees winning 16-3 and 10-0 to take the lead. The Pirates aren't demoralized, though - they fight back, winning the next two games 3-2 and 5-2 on the strength of good pitching. But the Bronx Bombers strike again, demolishing the Pirates 12-0 to tie the series at three games each. The pivotal seventh game goes into the bottom of the ninth inning, when Pirate Bill Mazeroski hits a pitch over the left field wall to win the series for Pittsburgh by a score of 10-9.

But wait a minute. Did Pittsburgh really win? I mean, the game of baseball is all about scoring runs, isn't it? And if we add up the runs, it's clear the Yankees were better: they outscored Pittsburgh 55-27. Clearly the Yankees were really the winners - the Pirates' World Series victory was illegitimate!

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? After all, the goal of each team was to win four games, not get the most runs over the course of the series. Yet this is exactly what people do when they talk about "winning the popular vote". This measure is like adding up runs in a baseball series: it is tallying the votes of 51 separate contests, which is not equivalent to properly measuring popular vote across an entire nation.

The Rules Determine the Goal; the Goal Determines the Strategy

What's wrong with summing the votes from the various states and the District of Columbia and using those numbers as an indicator of which candidate got the most votes? The problem is the same in politics as it is in baseball: the teams go after a goal based on the rules put in place before the contest begins. As mentioned, the Pirates and Yankees went into their series knowing that the objective was to win four games, not get the most total runs. Similarly, both political parties go into a presidential election knowing that the goal is 270 electoral votes, not getting 50.1% of the popular vote.

In turn, the goal dictates the strategy used in the contest. In both baseball and politics, each team has only a limited number of resources, and to win, they must allocate them in the most effective manner possible. Consider game 3 of the 1960 World Series: the Pirates were already down 10-0 before the game was half over. They might not have necessarily given up on winning such a game, but since they knew they had a long series ahead of them, they might well have tried to save some of their pitching strength for later games. Similarly, the Yankees probably wouldn't have pulled out all the stops to try to score as many runs as possible, since the game was well in hand. Both teams would try much harder in a close game where they each had to fight hard to win.

This happens in exactly the same manner in presidential elections. Consider the three states with the most voters in the nation: California, Texas and New York. Have you seen Barack Obama or John McCain running ads or campaigning heavily in these places? Of course not. Why? Because they are "laughers", like a 16-3 baseball game. Both Obama and McCain are trying to win electoral votes, not popular votes, and since the outcome of these three states is already clear, they won't waste resources on them. They will save their advertising money and other tools for the "battleground" states like Ohio, Colorado and Florida, which are equivalent to "pitching duels" in baseball.

The very same distortions occur when it comes to voters and their enthusiasm levels: people know when their presidential vote matters a great deal, and when it doesn't, and this impacts turn-out rates. For example, which state is more likely to have a high percentage of voters for this year's presidential election: Nevada, where John McCain currently holds a lead of less than 5%, or Oklahoma, where his lead is over 30%?

I Come to Neither Bury Nor Praise the Electoral College

There are arguments both for and against eliminating the electoral college and going to a straight across-the-nation single vote for president, but this article is not intended to argue for or against this change. Rather, the point is that unless and until we do make this move, any conclusions drawn about the "popular vote" are not only not legally binding, they are deceptive and damaging to assessments of presidential elections.

If we really want to elect a president based on who would win a majority of votes in a straight popular vote election across the nation, then we need to change the rules in advance. With the new goal made clear, both sides could then develop strategies intended to pursue it. And a straight popular vote presidential election would be a very different one from what we are accustomed to.

In such a vote, individual states cease to matter, and the objective would be to appeal to masses of voters directly. Both Republicans and Democrats would be heavily invested in the big states, because that's where the people are. Even if John McCain were behind by a lot in states like California and New York, it would be worthwhile for him to campaign there to narrow Obama's lead. The same would be true of Obama in states like Texas or Georgia.

We would see huge advertising efforts nationwide, because every vote would be worth the same amount in any state. We would not see massive advertising efforts in small states like New Hampshire and Nevada. In fact, we'd probably see little state-targeted advertising at all.

But this is not how we do things today, and until a change occurs, any "popular vote" numbers drawn by summations of 51 independent state tallies are bogus. Some might argue that even if these popular vote sums aren't perfect, we should use them anyway because that's the best measure of popular vote sentiment that we have, but this is a fallacy. Bad information is worse than no information - we are far better off accepting the fact that we don't know what the true popular vote totals would be across the nation, than drawing harmful, incorrect conclusions from invalid numbers.

This article cross-posted at my blog, AABW.