Popular Vote Matters? Only in a Fantasy World

As election day draws near, the chances of Mitt Romney winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college appears somewhat likely. If 2012 is anything like 2000, many Romney supporters will claim that Romney should be president because more people voted for him, just as supporters of Al Gore claimed that Gore should be president because he received more votes than George W. Bush.

With this post, I hope to prevent lunacy from proliferating around the United States. Anyone who thinks that the winner of the popular vote should be president needs to take a step back and understand that electoral strategies are a function of the rules of the game. If we change the rules of the game, we change the way the campaigns play. If you think that the popular vote is a better metric to select a president, that is perfectly fine. But you absolutely cannot use next Tuesday’s vote count to select a president based on that metric.

To use an analogy, to say the winner of the popular vote should win the presidency is the same as saying the team with the most hits should win a baseball game. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that only the electoral college matters. The candidates tailor their electoral strategies accordingly. Likewise, the rules of baseball stipulate that only the number of runs scored matters. The teams again strategize accordingly. A game of baseball to maximize hit differential looks fundamentally different than a game of baseball to maximize run differential. Sacrifice bunts would be completely off the table; bunting for a base hit would become much more frequent.

If only the popular vote mattered, the campaigns would be far different. The candidates would not pay such fervent attention to Ohio, since Ohio votes would count the same as Oregon votes, or Texas votes, or Maine votes. Campaign money would diffuse all over the country. Individual voters’ actions would change as well. A voter in California can rationally choose not to vote in next Tuesday’s election, since it is abundantly clear that Obama will win the state in a landslide, and therefore his vote is strategically irrelevant.[1] But if we changed how we count the votes, that would change that Californian’s incentives and might alter his decision to abstain.

Thus, we cannot use next Tuesday’s electoral vote count to decipher who would have received more votes in the world where we decide elections without the electoral college. Consequently, anyone who argues that Gore should have been elected in 2000 based off that vote has a defenseless argument[2] The same goes for anyone who says something about Romney next week, in case of an electoral/popular vote split.

On the other hand, to say that we should remove the electoral college from play is defensible. There is good theoretical reason to believe that simple majority votes are better able to pick the “better” of the two candidates, supposing there exists some sort of metric that makes Romney better than Obama or vice versa.[3] And personally, I am annoyed that all of the elections in my post-childhood lifetime have basically been decided by a handful of states, and the system perversely requires the candidates to spend all of their time, energy, and money in those states.

[1] See the paradox of voting:

[2] I, as a 13 year old during the 2000 election, was included in this group. My perspective has improved a great deal in the last twelve years.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_jury_theorem

One response to “Popular Vote Matters? Only in a Fantasy World

  1. Here’s the thing, though. Popular vote is a much better measure of “closeness” than the electoral vote, because a few percentage points swing in close elections in the popular vote corresponds to a much larger swing in the electoral vote. This really does matter because politicians take it as a sign of how much of a “mandate” they have. In other words, now that the election is over and Obama won almost all the swing states, he knows he can’t swing to the left too far and maintain his popularity. (Sure he’s not eligible for re-election, but he can be punished in Congress in two years and the next Democratic nominee in four.)

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