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Electoral College bias probe

Last week I spoke on a panel that changed my own views. The National Archives sponsored a discussion of the Electoral College, where the arguments presented — historical, philosophical and practical — required fresh thinking about an old topic, made relevant by a forthcoming election and a movie about an earlier one.

Neither a historian nor a philosopher, I will resist the temptation to rehearse the pros and cons and instead ask a simple question: Is there a bias in the Electoral College benefiting either Democrats or Republicans?

Electoral votes are only consequential when the popular vote is close. Lose the popular vote by 10 points, or even by three, and the discussion is merely academic — the popular- and the electoral-vote winner will be the same. But five of the last 12 presidential elections produced margins narrow enough that the popular and electoral votes could have diverged.

Of course, they actually did so only once, and that experience weighs heavily on our thinking — too heavily, perhaps — leading us to conclude the system is biased against Democrats. After all, Al Gore won the popular vote (without dispute) and lost the electoral vote (heavily and rightfully disputed) in 2000.

In the 1970s and ’80s, GOP strength in small states gave them an electoral-vote advantage, but that bias has shifted, creating an edge for Democrats in today’s Electoral College. (The math gets pretty arcane pretty quickly, testing my ability to write clearly.)

In 2004 we developed a sophisticated state-level resource allocation model for the Kerry campaign, incorporating historical results, economic factors, current poll data and more.

Without all the dull details, as part of that effort, we ran 2 million simulations of the general-election outcomes each week. Based on these models, we calculated the likelihood of winning the Electoral College with various national popular vote margins.

The bottom line was simple. John Kerry could lose the popular vote by 1.6 percentage points and still have a 39 percent chance of winning the electoral vote. If the popular-vote loss had been just half a percentage point, he would have had a 70 percent chance of winning the Electoral College.

These simulations suggest the pro-Democratic tilt of the Electoral College.

So does application of straightforward math, resting on the simple proposition that Republicans “waste” more popular votes than do Democrats.

For example, Bush won Alabama’s nine electoral votes by piling up a popular-vote margin of 482,461. Kerry won Minnesota’s nine electoral votes with a margin of just 98,319. Put differently, Bush’s popular-vote margin in Alabama was nearly 4.5 times Kerry’s in Minnesota, but they got an identical number of electoral votes.

Kerry’s California margin was two and a half times larger than Bush’s in Alabama, but Kerry got six times the number of electoral votes from California than Bush did from Alabama.

Two-point-five times the vote margin for six times the delegates — a good tradeoff for our side.

 “Wasted” votes were evident across states — Bush got 30,058 votes in margin per electoral vote, while Kerry averaged 13,623.

The GOP increasingly “wastes” votes because states — especially Republican states — are increasingly polarized, giving greater margins to their candidates. In 1988, there were just three states, worth 11 electoral votes, that were off the national popular vote by 10 points or more. In 2004, there were 16 such states, worth 135 electoral votes, and all but four of them were GOP states.

Will the bias switch back again to the GOP? Ah, there’s the rub. Having not been endowed with the gift of prophecy, we just can’t know.

So where you stand on the Electoral College should not merely be a function of which party you sit with.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.