Critics of the Electoral College argue for a national popular vote, their main argument being a basic one: so every citizen has an equal voice in deciding who wins the presidency, not just those in competitive states. While this argument has obvious appeal, it collapses under close scrutiny. In a direct national election, candidates would still focus most of their time, energy, and money in particular areas — and this time it would be the parties’ traditional geographic base, with an emphasis on big states. In the current system, candidates must build a broad coalition consisting of their loyal base (safe states) and undecided voters (swing states) to win the presidency, instead of focusing on one or two regions or demographic groups.
Tara Ross, the author of several books about the Electoral College, explains why the current system does not really disenfranchise voters outside the swing states. “Safe states are not being ignored,” she says. “They have simply already made up their minds based upon the years of decisions that preceded the election. When a state ceases to be satisfied, it quickly lets its political party — and the world! — know. Such states either become safe for the opposite political party (as West Virginia did following the election of 2000) or they become a new swing state (as Virginia recently has).”
Swing states are the late deciders, forcing candidates to move beyond their primary coalitions and speak to average American voters, including independents. As Ross argues, safe states form the bedrock for a winning coalition. Swing states matter because they compel campaigns to reach out to undecided voters.
In the final stretch of a presidential campaign, candidates focus on swing states only because they already know what most voters in the other states want. For example, in a small town with 50 voters, it doesn’t make sense for a mayoral candidate to spend time and resources persuading her 20 committed voters or the 20 who have already picked her opponent. She will focus her campaign on the 10 undecided voters.
States are also constantly changing. For decades, California was a swing state; Florida and Vermont were once solidly Republican. Over time, voters in any given state change their preferences as political coalitions and party platforms evolve. Hillary Clinton alienated voters in the Midwest who had voted for President Obama twice, while Donald Trump was tailoring his appeal to these very voters. These decisions mattered, as Wisconsin, which hadn’t voted for a Republican since 1984, went for Trump, proving that supposedly safe states aren’t necessarily safe.
Advocates for schemes like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would hijack the Electoral College system to create a de facto direct election, promise to make “Every vote equal.” But in a direct election, candidates would focus attention on large urban areas and geographic regions where their base resides. With a national popular vote, Democrats would primarily campaign in big cities and blue strongholds like California and New York, while Republicans would look to spike turnout in Texas and the rest of the South.
Dan McLaughlin, a senior writer for National Review, argues this is what Democrats did in 2016. “More than 13 percent of Hillary’s voters lived in a single state, California — the highest proportion for any candidate since Dewey in his home state (New York, then the nation’s most populous) in 1944, and higher than any winning candidate since 1868. … Hillary’s 4.2-million-vote margin in California more than accounted for her 2.9-million-vote plurality nationally. That one-party unity in the largest state, out of step with the rest of America, explains more about the popular/electoral vote split than the small states do.”
Clinton’s success in California didn’t translate into a national victory because Trump won diverse states like Arizona, Florida, and Michigan. He may have been blown out in California, but a diverse swath of the American public wanted him to win.
The Electoral Colleges forces candidates to build a coalition of safe and swing states to win the presidency. A candidate like Clinton who doesn’t respect the diversity of American voters may win a landslide in California but lose Pennsylvania and Florida. Under our current system, both safe and swing states are crucial, and candidates must build a broad coalition to win the White House.