Here we are – a mere 48 hours before the American election that will decide whether Barack Obama will see a second term, or whether his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will unseat him to take the keys to the White House. There seems to be a lot of confusion amongst British journalists and the public about how the Electoral Voting system in America works, with accusations ranging from it is undemocratic; it reeks of hypocrisy, and of course, an incredible amount of misinformation about the polls.
At the end of this blog I will make a prediction about the election and who will win and by how much. Either read my dithering words on the election or scroll to the end.
Firstly, let’s take a step back and look at American politics. The US is made up of a federal government that sits in Washington DC plus 50 states. Each of these states has a capital city, and each state has a state government. Most states collect state income taxes on top of federal income tax. Each state has its own roles and functions within government. It is the uneasy relationship between the federal government and the States that dictates a great deal of American politics. The federal law imposes standards across all 50 states, and some States take umbrage with minimum federal requirements. Mitt Romney passed healthcare in Massachusetts mandating coverage. Obamacare used the Romney model at the federal level. No-one cares about Romneycare; everyone cares about a federal health mandate.
The abortion fight is a perfect example of the battle between the States and the federal government and serves as one of the most misunderstood examples of this tension manifests itself. The Supreme Court in Roe v Wade made it illegal for states to outlaw abortion. The debate amongst the Supreme Court judges is not pro-choice v pro-life, but rather whether the Supreme Court and the federal government have this kind of authority. Advocates of the pro-life position don’t really understand that. If Roe v Wade was overturned tomorrow, abortion would still have to be made illegal by state legislatures, not any guarantee of that happening.
Why States should be respected
It will be no surprise to historians as to how an action by the federal government will affect states; the abolishment of slavery, for example was thought locally to have a devastating impact on the southern economies. The civil right movement and desegregation are modern examples when the federal government has imposed its will over states and local prejudices. The founding fathers recognized this and built this protection in. Of course there are valid arguments about whether or not this is in fact democratic; I imagine this protection of against reactionary voting patterns to controversial federal action was built in to the US constitution for a reason.
Why the Popular Vote doesn’t matter AT ALL
It simply doesn’t A President is elected by 270 electoral votes, not the popular vote. The presidential election is about whom wins the most states; the number of blue vs. the number of red states.
Each state is given a proportional number of votes based on their population. California has 55, Texas (38) New York (29) are the top three. North Dakota, Alaska, and South Dakota have 3 at the bottom end. Maine and Nebraska have split delegates and can send their votes for different candidates, which did happen in the last election, but every other state is Winner Take All. The number of electors is 538, based on the total voting membership of the United States Congress (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) and three electors from the District of Columbia; the winner of the election is the first one to 270.
To see how the states are treated proportionally…
Let’s talk in binary for a second. I am a digital kind of guy and it is much easier for me to think and to explain this in nice round numbers.
Let’s say there are 100 million voters in Texas. In our hypothetical example, Texas carries 100 Electoral Votes. The federal government passes legislation that is perceived by Texans to disproportionately affect them and by a huge margin they vote Obama out of office.
Romney gets 90M votes (90%). Obama gets 10M (10%)
Now let’s say the next 10 States (they can stay nameless in this example for the point of this being hypothetical), each with population of 10M and 10 electoral votes splitting the vote along the lines of Obama 51%/49% Romney. Now Romney has 90 Million Texans voting for him and 49 Million Americans from our other ten hypothetical states.
So after the 11 states report, Romney has 139M votes cast for him to Obama’s 61M (10 Million Texans + 51M from our hypothetical states). Yet Obama has 100 electoral votes and Romney has 100 electoral votes.
Now obviously I have stretched and simplified these numbers out to make a point, but the point is clear. The states decide the election, not the popular vote.
In Bush/Gore in 2000, Gore scored about 500,000 more votes than Bush across the US. However, the election by and by came down to Florida and the 4 month Supreme Court challenge over the recount and the “hanging chad”. Most British commentators don’t seem to get this. Democrats were not as angry about the 500K votes Gore got in front of Bush, as they were about the Supreme Court stopping the recount in Florida due to time constraints. It was a 5-4 decision across party affiliation, with 5 conservative appointed judges voting to respect Floridian law and 4 democratically appointed judges, seeking to allow the recount to go on, contravening the constitution. It was largely perceived and reported as the Supreme Court deciding the election. This was because the Floridian Secretary of State Katherine Harris was a Republican and her choices in the election were respected. Had Katherine Harris been a democrat, we can only imagine what decisions she would have made to influence the outcome in Florida and whether the Supreme Court would have ruled in the same manner.
So based on my discussion above, it makes no sense whatsoever to look at popular vote, rather than as a gauge of the state of the electorate. But make no mistake; the popular vote has no outcome on the election whatsoever. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4 who lead with headlines like “Down to the wire”, “Too close to call” and “US rivals deadlocked in last push”.
Yes, you can make some sort of ideological argument about whether Obama has the “mandate to govern” if he loses the popular vote. Democrats most certainly did after Bush won in 2000, but if you want to predict who the next President is, you need to look at the State polls, not the popular. I do not care at all about the popular vote or the polls showing a dead heat.
So what do the state polls say?
There are 9 swing states that will decide the election. These swing states are Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada, and of course Ohio. These are the states where they are within +/- margin of error. The balance of the remaining non swing states is so one way that they cannot be considered as competitive, and therefore, relevant to deciding the outcome of the election. These 9 states are the key to winning the election. And all the state polls, while close, show an Obama win. Looking at the gambling markets, the punters at Intrade, for example, Obama wins all the swing states, bar Florida and North Carolina. Colorado and Virginia are within the margin of error, but Obama has the lead and has for a long time now.
While it might not be as big an advantage as Obama had over McCain, according to the punters, Obama wins with 306 to 232 electoral votes.
More scientific though is the aggregation polling method in analysing state polls. This method takes all of the polls in a state to migrate them into one larger poll. There have been hundreds of smaller organizations in states that have released less than a 6 polls each. Most have only released a single poll. Pollsters can’t reliably estimate the internal bias for all of these polls. However, they can probably safely assume that in aggregate they aren’t all ideologically in sync – so that whatever biases they have will all cancel each other when pooled together.
I won’t give away my sources in this post, but every single aggregate poll at the state level shows a very clear outcome. My prediction will come down to the integrity of these polls –
Obama crushes Romney. It is not even close. As of today, analysing most state aggregate polls show Obama winning with 332 electoral votes. These also show Obama winning Colorado, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Now I am not prepared to accept that Obama wins all of the swing states, bar North Carolina. Virginia and Florida are simply too close to call. There are also two variables in all of this. Voter ID laws have been accused of suppressing and disenfranchising votes across the country. The other variable is the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, although this largely affected the heavily democratic states of New York and New Jersey, I don’t see this as turning these famously blue states red.
Therefore, I predict an Obama victory with 319 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 219.
I hope I am right, but don’t wage any money on it!