Democrats should stop worrying about the Electoral College

Democrats should stop worrying about the Electoral College
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A recent poll found that 79 percent of Democrats would prefer to do away with the Electoral College as the method for selecting a president. This result is not surprising given that twice in the past two decades (2000 and 2016), Democrats have won the national popular vote but failed to win the electoral vote and with it, the White House.

Yet Democrats should not imagine that this result is all that likely to repeat itself, or that they will remain permanently disadvantaged by the electoral math. The demographics underlying the distribution of the nation’s electoral votes could shift significantly in favor of the Democrats, and remain in place for several cycles.

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A detailed report authored by Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixiera and William H. Frey for the Center for American Progress simulated 16 scenarios for 2020, varying turnout rates and vote choice preferences, and found that in 10 of them, the Democrats win both the popular vote and the electoral vote. Projecting these scenarios into the future, the authors find that by 2036, Democrats would win more than 300 electoral votes in 15 of the 16 simulations.

But if the party’s future is bright, the near-term is precarious. In 2020, Republicans are projected to win the electoral vote in five scenarios, even though the Democrats win the popular vote in four. One other scenario reveals a Democratic popular vote win with an electoral vote tie (269-269), which likely would result in a Republican becoming president.

With that said, three of the imagined five inversion scenarios appear somewhat far-fetched given current trends in the partisan leanings of demographic groups.

For example, one unlikely scenario assumes that “Hispanics, Asians and those belonging to other racial groups swing 7.5 points toward the GOP candidate relative to 2016 levels of support and 7.5 points away from the Democratic candidate — an overall 15-point margin swing. In 2020, this would create a narrow popular vote victory for the Democratic candidate — 0.8 points — but a robust 315-223 Republican victory in the Electoral College.”

The second unlikely scenario assumes that white college graduates swing 5 percentage points towards the Republican candidate and 5 percentage points away from the Democratic candidate from the 2016 results. In this case, Republicans “would narrowly lose the popular vote in 2020 … [but] achieve a 323-215 electoral vote victory.”

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The third assumes there is a “5-point margin swing toward the GOP among white non-college educated voters with a 5-point margin swing toward the Democrats among white college graduates.” Doing this would result in a similar outcome to 2016, except that New Hampshire also would swing towards the Republicans. Though some may contend this is a real possibility, a recent study by the Democracy Fund found that those who voted for President Obama in 2012 and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE in 2016 are the only voters who have “had a significant change in their view of President Trump over the last two years.” There has been a drop in Trump’s favorability among this group of 19 percentage points, and these voters happen to be “disproportionally white, non-college educated.” Taken together, these data suggest that Trump's support among this group is more likely to sustain or slightly decrease, rather than increase.

Only the electoral vote tie and one other Republican-favored scenario seem truly plausible. In the tie, it is assumed that those who voted for third-party candidates in 2016 will vote in 2020 according to their “underlying partisan preferences,” which slightly help the Democrats. The final inversion scenario assumes that white college graduates vote as they did in 2012, rather than 2016. In this case, “Republicans, despite losing the popular vote, would still pull out a narrow electoral vote victory of 273-265 in 2020.”

More to the point, the imagined scenario that seems most plausible in 2020, given both the recent trends in partisan leanings and 2018 exit polls, is a scenario involving “white college graduate voters swinging 5 points toward the Democratic Party and 5 points away from Republicans — a 10-point margin shift overall.” According to the authors, this results in “the Democratic candidate [achieving] a 334-204 Electoral College victory while handily winning the popular vote by more than 6 points.”  

Crucially, Democrats would win back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and pick up Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. It is also the case that Georgia, Ohio, Texas and Iowa would move into “swing” territory.

Even though the authors make clear that exit polls seem to systematically underrepresent white non-college educated voters, it is instructive to consider what could happen were the electorate to be the same as 2016, but the vote choices of different racial groups to follow the 2018 midterms. In this instance, whites would split in favor of the Republicans 54 to 44, instead of 57 to 37 (as in 2016). Similarly, Democrats would increase the percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities voting for them, even as their proportion in the electorate remained at the 2016 levels.

This math suggests that the GOP candidate (presumably, President Trump) would garner 44.7 percent of the national popular vote, and the Democratic candidate 54.3 percent. Democrats would win the electoral vote in a landslide. Under no circumstance is an inversion possible when the popular vote margin is this large (nearly 10 percent).

Moving beyond 2020, the distribution of electoral votes across the South and West and the demographics changing the states in these regions are likely to be a boon to Democrats.

Long-term census estimates (map “2010-2018,” p. 9) suggest that the battleground states of Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida are likely to have a total of five more electoral votes than they do now. So while Democrats would lose four electoral votes from a few of their base states (Illinois, New York and Minnesota), Republicans would lose five votes from states they won in 2016: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia and Alabama. Democrats would also presumably pick up a vote in Oregon and Republicans would pick up a vote in Montana. The Republicans’ only real advantage in the future Electoral College would come from Texas gaining three votes. But that only helps the Republicans if Texas stays red. And as most nearly every scenario in the above report suggests, Texas is moving into swing territory.

Simply put, Democrats should stop fretting about electoral vote inversions. In almost every presidential election, a party’s popular vote margin was magnified, not minimized in the Electoral College. Case in point: in 2012, President Obama won 51 percent of the popular vote, but more than 61 percent of the Electoral College vote. Why is it that no Democrat cried foul then, voicing concerns about the unfairness of under-representing the minority of voters?

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.