Clinton Vs Trump - The Electoral College Is Key, Often Misunderstood And Could Be About To Make A Big Shift

17/10/2016 12:49

On the morning of Wednesday 9 November 2000, Americans awoke, if they had been to bed, to deep confusion regarding who had actually won the US election. That confusion remained for 33 days, through local courts, state courts and recounts, until it was finally decided in the US Supreme Court by a 5-4 margin in a case which summed it all up, Bush v. Gore. This case effectively awarded Florida's 27 Electoral College votes to George W. Bush and therefore the election would go to him by the slimmest of margins in the Electoral College, 271-267. This was despite Al Gore receiving approximately half a million more votes than Bush.

America and the world became aware of what Al Gore has described as "You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some... and then there's that little-known third category." It wasn't the first time that the Electoral College produced an outcome different from the way the American people voted. It has happened on four occasions in total but before 2000 it hadn't happened since 1888. Roy Morris' book "Fraud of the Century" wonderfully describes the 1876 race between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, where Tilden was robbed of his victory by an outrageous manipulation of the Electoral College. As a result, Hayes, the eventual winner, was known throughout his Presidency as Rutherfraud B. Hayes and His Fraudulency.

The Electoral College came into being through the Founding Fathers, stopping direct elections for the President, ensuring that some power still remains essentially at state level. The 538 Electoral College votes are made up of the number of members of the House of Representatives (435) and the Senate (100) with three voters from Washington DC thrown in. Each state has two Senators regardless of size but the number of Representatives varies according to the size of the population. So a small population state, like Wyoming gets 3 votes (2 Senators +1 Representative) whereas a big state like California gets 55 votes (2 Senators +53 Representatives). As it is "winner takes all" for 48 of the states it is possible for a close election to produce a result that doesn't reflect the popular vote, if a candidate stacks up too many votes in a state they have already won. You only need to win a state by one vote, every vote in excess of that is irrelevant.

This type of anomaly isn't confined to the US; in February 1974 the Ted Heath's Conservatives got more votes than Labour but ended up with fewer seats. That's what can happen when the vote is close and local variations become very important. The advantage of the First Past the Post system is that once a candidate starts winning by a decent margin their lead exaggerates, giving them a stronger mandate. Reagan in 1984 won 58.8% of the vote, which enabled him to win 49 states; similarly, Nixon won 49 states with 60.7% of the vote in 1972.

This brings us onto Trump and Clinton. In the last two decades, the Democrat candidate has started with an advantage in the Electoral College. Democrats have won the popular vote five out the last six elections and they have a significant number of states that have consistently voted for them. Of the five biggest electoral vote-giving states, California, New York and Illinois are firmly in the democrat column; Florida has been a battleground state; and only Texas has been reliably Republican.

Very little changed between Obama's two elections, where he built an impressive lead in electoral votes. Only two states changed between the two elections: Indiana, which was a surprise win for the Democrats in 2008, was historically Republican and returned that way in 2012; and North Carolina which seemed to be moving towards the Democrat column over the years with changing demographics, made a slip back to Republicans maybe for one last time.

So how are both candidates doing on this year's electoral map? Trump was hoping to make major headway in the mid-West taking states from Clinton like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin with his protectionist and anti-immigration message. Hillary Clinton seems to be firmly in control of the majority of Obama's states with the exceptions of Ohio and Iowa, where Trump's relative strength with working class white males which is helping him; in the others, she has a significant lead. In other places like Virginia, which was reliably Republican until the Obama elections, Hillary has a large lead and Trump is pulling resources from the state suggesting that he is resigned to losing there. If Trump can't expand from the states McCain and Romney won, then his campaign is doomed as the status quo is strongly Democrat.

Obama moved the electoral map significantly in the Democrats favour, leaving Hillary with few flip-flop states to make the next shift. If she does well then she should retake North Carolina easily. The next batch of states to look at where she could gain new territory are: Arizona, with its large Hispanic population alienated by Trump's anti-immigration message; Georgia, which is probably the next demographic domino in the South to follow Virginia and North Carolina; and Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, where Trump's actions and language seem to be deeply offending the Mormon psyche. If Trump is truly overwhelmed then there is a chance that Texas could fall which would be devastating for the Republicans.

If nothing changes at this point, then Hillary could be heading for a win in the Electoral College on a similar scale as Obama. However, if Trump's share of the vote collapses even more, then she could make a seismic change in the way the map looks and the word "landslide" might come into play.

Mark Malcomson is Principal and CEO of City Lit, Europe's biggest adult education college. Mark teaches American politics and is starting a new course on the US elections on Thursday 20 October 2016 at City Lit.