In Defense of the Pennsylvania Electoral College Plan

I have had my battles in the past with liberal numbers "guru" Nate Silver, mainly because of his partisan response to the scientific polls I commissioned after the 2008 election revealed that he was neither impartial nor even very knowledgeable about the basics of polling.

Despite that, I acknowledge that Silver has somehow created the perception that he knows what he is talking about to the point where he may have some influence over what people actually think is likely to transpire in the political world.  Sometimes, I will admit, he does even make some valid points.  But his recent warning in the New York Times to Pennsylvania Republicans not to go through with their plan to allocate their Electoral College votes by congressional district is definitely not one of those occasions.

At best, Silver is engaging in wishful thinking.  At worst, he is spreading blatantly faulty reasoning in order to take part in the media's inevitable intimidation campaign against the Pennsylvania legislature. 

For those who don't yet know about it (if the plan gets close to fruition, it will be one of the biggest political stories of the year), Pennsylvania is considering allocating their Electoral College votes in 2012 the way that Maine and Nebraska already do so by giving two to the winner of the state and one each to the victor of every congressional district.

The reason why this proposal is getting so much attention is because President Obama is expected to win Pennsylvania, just as the Democratic candidate has in every presidential election since 1988, which would give him 20 votes in the Electoral College.  However, under the new plan, Obama would be likely to only get 10 or even fewer votes from the Keystone State.

It is very important to point out that this likely loss of at least 10 EC votes is far more significant in Obama's case than might be immediately apparent.  This is because it effectively means that Obama must somehow get to at least 280 (rather than the 270 normally needed to win) under the 2008 allocation rules, and in the current political climate it appears that the president hits a rather hard ceiling at 272.  In other words, without 20 votes from Pennsylvania, there is a darn good chance that Obama simply can't get to the magic number of 270.

But somehow Silver has concluded that this very thinking upon which the plan is based is so flawed that it could actually cause Obama to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat.  The reality is that Silver's alternative scenario is simply absurd, and his own analysis proves it.  

Silver lays out an EC map where the Republican candidate actually wins Pennsylvania outright (but doesn't get the 20 EC votes he or she would normally receive) and loses the election because of the proposed change.  Under Silver's fantasy, Obama wins Virginia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, but, again, loses Pennsylvania.

This outcome is just not possible.  I am even willing to bet Mr. Silver whatever dollar amount he wants (at 100-to-one odds) that it won't happen, and it doesn't even take a political science degree to see why he won't be reckless enough to take the wager.

It has become very clear that states/regions vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections based on largely the overall "tide" of any particular election, with both parties holding their baseline states even in "low tide."

When Democrats are at very "high tide" like they were in 2008, they can win the Eastern Seaboard all the way to North Carolina and sweep the Midwest while taking Florida and a couple of southwestern states along with the entire west coast. 

The modern Republican "high tide" (thanks to the media, it wasn't nearly as "high" as the Democrat version in 2008) occurred in 2004 when George Bush won the entire Southeast, Southwest, and Upper Midwest along with Ohio and Indiana.

Even in 2004, Republicans didn't win Pennsylvania, and in 2000 Bush lost the state pretty badly even with a popular Republican governor working hard for him there.  In 2008, Obama won by 11 points despite a huge effort by the McCain/Palin team.

Meanwhile, Virginia, where the Obama "high tide" almost crested, went Democratic for the first time since the 1960s with Obama winning by just seven points.  Today, Obama's poll numbers in the state are among the worst of any state he won in 2008.

I would love for Mr. Silver to provide the plausible set of circumstances which would cause Obama to win Virginia but lose Pennsylvania (or, for that matter, how he somehow loses PA but wins New Hampshire against Mitt Romney), because if he can come up with one, he truly is a magician.  The fact is that if Obama can win Virginia again (doubtful), then he is virtually a lock to win not only Pennsylvania, but also Ohio and, of course, reelection.  It is not as if the outcomes in these different states will take place in individual vacuums or be dictated by different campaign news, debates, or economic climates.  If Obama is strong enough to win Virginia and New Hampshire, it won't matter what the Pennsylvania legislature does because he will be reelected.

The facts are that if Romney is the nominee and nothing dramatically alters the political landscape between now and then, it appears that under the current rules Obama can't get past 272 Electoral College votes, and that includes a win in New Hampshire (one of the many reasons why Romney is the most electable Republican candidate).  This number is based on Obama winning all of the "Kerry" states from 2004, plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada (you can do your own calculations here).

Obviously this is a projected outcome which may end up being rather generous to the incumbent, but that is the very point of the Pennsylvania plan.  While currently it may be fairly easy for Obama to get to 272, it is difficult to see how he gets past that number, at least against Romney.  The only way he does is by pulling an upset in Florida or Ohio, and if he does either, then the change in Pennsylvania's rules won't come into play anyway.  The Pennsylvania plan makes Obama's 272 strategy a certain loser, and that is why it is so brilliant.  At the very least it would require Obama to win big somewhere in Republican territory in order to survive.

But Silver doesn't stop at just trying to scare the Pennsylvania legislature into thinking that they might inadvertently cause Obama's reelection.  He also claims that there are several other reasons for them to pass on the idea.

He asserts that if other states followed their example, it could "undermine the integrity" of the Electoral College, but this argument makes little sense.  Because Maine and Nebraska already make their selections this way with absolutely no fanfare, it is hard to understand how one other state doing so would suddenly "undermine the integrity" of the entire system.  While it would certainly get confusing if only a few more states followed PA's lead, it is doubtful that any others would be in a position to do so before 2012, and after the election there would be plenty of time for the rest of the nation to also adopt a system which frankly is far more efficient and equitable than the current one.  For instance, there would have been no need for the insane Florida recount in 2000, while California, Texas, and New York would suddenly become at least somewhat relevant if every state did what is being proposed by Pennsylvania.

Silver's funniest effort comes when he theorizes (threatens?) that this effort by Republicans in Pennsylvania would motivate greater Democratic turnout in the state and nationwide.  This is a hilarious proposition on several fronts.

First of all, with only a few highly competitive districts in Pennsylvania, even a tidal wave of angry Democrats rushing to the polls would only give Obama another couple of votes at most.  Secondly, if Silver really thinks that the average voter even knows what the Electoral College is to begin with, or believes that a clearly legal adjustment to it would create massive outrage, then he is dangerously out of touch for a guy who claims to be an expert on how people vote.

Silver then goes on to contradict this last point by lamenting that Pennsylvania would be giving up all the attention and campaign money that comes with being a "swing" state.  This is also a fallacy.  Under the current rules, Pennsylvania would already be way down the list of highly contested states, especially since Republicans have seemingly learned that PA can be counted on for little more than an unfulfilling tease.  If the rules were changed, the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets, for instance, would actually see plenty of activity because several of their suburban districts would be up for grabs.  In an election as close as this one could be, they could even end up deciding the winner.

Silver ultimately concludes, without apparent evidence, that he doesn't think that the Republican coalition for the proposal will hold together, even though they can lose several members of each chamber and still have enough votes to pass it.  If that indeed is the result, let's hope that it is because of legitimate concerns based on facts and reality and not partisan fear-mongering disguised as political science.  There is no doubt that the Pennsylvania legislature is in for an enormous amount of heat if they pursue this strategy, but if Silver's lame first effort is any indication, their opposition won't be based on much light.

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