How much will the electoral college matter in 2008?

Josh Patashnik has a great article in The New Republic discussing how all of the media focus on the electoral college lately is way overblown– surely in large part due to the trauma of 2000.  What I especially love about this article is that he uses all sorts of actual Political Science research to make his case.  Basically, the electoral college almost never matters unless the popular vote is extraordinarily close, and there's no reason to expect that to be the case this year:

highly unlikely Obama will win the popular vote while losing the electoral
college–in fact, it's all but impossible unless the popular vote is
exceptionally close, as it was in 2000. But, on the off-chance Obama's trouble
in those states does end up looming large, history gives little reason to
believe that putting Rendell or Strickland on the ticket would do much to help.

At the moment, Electoral College obsession
is once again overtaking the punditocracy, so please forgive me if I'm pointing
out the obvious: The Electoral College very rarely matters, and our current fixation
on it is mostly a product of memories from the Bush-Gore race. Before that year,
only once in American history–1888–had a candidate won a popular-vote
plurality while legitimately losing the presidency in the Electoral College.
(The election of 1876 doesn't
, and in 1824 the vote went to
the House of Representatives.) In both 1888 and 2000, moreover, the national
popular vote was extremely close–a margin of 0.8 percent and 0.5
percent, respectively.

Once the national popular-vote margin gets much greater than
that, it quickly becomes prohibitively difficult for a losing candidate to
prevail in the Electoral College.

What I most appreciated about the article was the argument that we cannot say things like “if only 60,000 votes in Ohio had changed” in a vacuum.  To wit:

More importantly, though, votes don't just spontaneously
shift in one key state. A major insight
from the 2004 campaign, on the part of strategists like Bush's Matthew Dowd, is
that votes are determined less by one's physical location than by factors like
demography and lifestyle choices: A Bush voter in Ohio
looks like a Bush voter in California.
As Bill Bishop argues in his recent book, The Big Sort , as Republicans and Democrats diverge from each other in their living
patterns, they increasingly resemble their partisan compatriots across state
borders.As a result, any event or trend capable of producing a swing
of 60,000 votes in Ohio from Bush to Kerry
would almost surely have had some effect outside of Ohio. If the effect had been distributed proportionally
throughout the country, a swing of 60,000 votes in Ohio would correspond to a swing of around 1.5 million votes nationally–enough to erase Bush's 3-million-vote lead
in the popular vote. Or, in 2000, suppose Al Gore's margin of victory in the
national popular vote had been 1.5 percent, rather than 0.5. That amounts to a
net gain for Gore of more than 1 million votes, and about 60,000 in Florida, if distributed
equally throughout the country. Just a fraction of that figure would have given
him the presidency, recount or no recount.

He concludes with a nice summary of some political science that I think puts things in proper perspective:

These questions are part of a larger debate in political
science: Can the outcomes of presidential campaigns shift significantly as a
result of campaign quirks, or are they determined largely by underlying
economic and political fundamentals? For the most part, the latter view has won
out–and it suggests
that the Democratic nominee is headed for a relatively comfortable win.
course, the candidacy of Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton, for that
makes 2008 the first election that won't have two white male
candidates, and therefore something of a historical anomaly. The race
could end up being
a 2000-style nail-biter–and, in that case, there's a small possibility
that electoral math and running mates will make a difference. But if
things do play
out as they have for decades, a lot of hyperventilating pundits will
have egg on their faces.

So…1) If Obama (or McCain) end us with a good lead in the polls in early November, forget about all the electoral college fuss.  2) Political Science research quite strongly suggests that this is a Democratic year, regardless of what Obama and McCain actually do in the campaign.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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