There's a strain of logic in recent presidential campaign discourse that goes something like this: Though Barack Obama sports a modest lead over John McCain in national polling, his apparent weakness in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida could lead to a loss in the electoral college even if he wins the national popular vote by a wide margin. But his salvation could lie in picking someone from one of those states, like Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell or Ohio governor Ted Strickland, as his running mate.
At first glance, it seems like a compelling argument. On closer inspection, though, it's fundamentally misguided--on both counts. It's 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 count, 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. Take, for example, the oft-heard refrain that
a swing of 60,000 votes in
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
As a result, any event or trend capable of producing a swing
of 60,000 votes in
For this reason, political scientists tend to discount the
likelihood of an Electoral College–popular vote split. "The consensus is
that there's a very narrow band where a split is really even possible--just a
one- or two-percent margin at most," says Daron Shaw, an Electoral College
expert at the
Granted, at the margin, Obama currently looks stronger in
some swing states (
It's always tempting to believe this election will be different--maybe Obama will prove uniquely able to win huge victories in blue states and "waste" votes cutting into McCain's margin in red states, while underperforming in battleground states. But this speculation has been wrong before. In 2000, for instance, many observers thought Bush would win the popular vote fairly easily by running up the score in the South, but would lose the Electoral College.
Needless to say, it didn't turn out that way, and, despite
breathless predictions to the contrary ("The
coming Electoral College crisis"), it probably won't this time. As in
2000, the doomsayers rely on overblown regional stereotypes and underestimate
the degree of nationalization in the electorate. If massive support from
college-educated voters and record black turnout drive up Obama's totals in
Of course, it's
certainly possible that the election will be so close as to make a split
conceivable. So Obama had better pick a Rendell or a Strickland as V.P., right?
Well, no. Summing up the work of the political scientists who have explored the
question, David W. Romero of the
There's little evidence vice presidential candidates make a
difference even in their home states. A 1989 analysis by Robert Dudley and
Ronald Rapoport in the American Journal
of Political Science found that, on average, a vice-presidential candidate
improves his ticket's performance in his home state by only a statistically
insignificant 0.3 percent. (Presidential candidates, by contrast, get a sizable
four-percent boost in their home states.) Their result has been borne out in
the years since--remember when Edwards was supposed to put
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. Of course, the candidacy of Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter) 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.