by Bill Scher
“You’re going to have to get rid of the Electoral College,” CNN’s Don Lemon said recently, “because the minority in this country decides who the judges are and they decide who the president is.” Any Democratic activist will remind you that in two of the last five presidential elections, the Republican ticket won in the Electoral College without carrying the popular vote. The argument that the Electoral College is biased towards Republicans has been further bolstered by FiveThirtyEight’s statistical modeling, which projects that if Joe Biden wins the popular vote by three percentage points or less, Donald Trump would nevertheless be favored to win the presidency.
If Biden wins by more than three points, as current polling presently suggests, then these arguments against the Electoral College won’t be instantly invalidated. But a decisive win by Democrats in November could alter the political landscape.
Of course, one win doesn’t automatically portend successive wins of similar size and scope. Barack Obama beat John McCain by seven points in 2008 — flipping states in the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest — yet Republicans narrowed the Electoral College margin in 2012 before winning it outright in 2016. A Biden presidency could be rocky enough for Republicans to win the White House back in short order.
But there are indications of more sweeping changes in the American electorate. As the Republican Party has become more populist and nativist, more college-educated suburban whites appear to be gravitating to the Democrats. In addition, as these voters have migrated into the Southeast and Southwest, alongside significant nonwhite populations, formerly reliable GOP strongholds such as Arizona and Georgia are now toss-ups. Even other deeply conservative states — Texas and South Carolina, for instance — are becoming increasingly hospitable to more liberal candidates.
Democrats had once convinced themselves that demographic changes made them destined to rule. Obama’s 2008 victory, powered by a galvanized multiracial coalition, seemed to validate the 2002 book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which posited that Democrats were poised to have a “distinct advantage” in the Electoral College. “Rural America is shrinking,” the authors wrote, “and densely populated metropolitan America is growing.”
Democrats ran with that analysis, limiting the reach of their coalition. Obama won a second term in 2012 in part by exploiting cultural divides, such as accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women.” But in winning reelection, he carried two fewer states and a popular vote margin half as large as it had been in 2008. Yet despite the relatively close popular vote margin, only four states were decided by five percentage points or less. It is extremely unusual for a close election to have so few closely contested states (2016 had 10 close states; 2000 had 12). Blue states becoming very blue, and red states becoming very red, was an indication of deepening political and cultural polarization.
The divide didn’t faze Democrats at the time, because they believed it worked in their favor. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” insult, in which she tagged half of Trump’s base as bigots, wasn’t a gaffe. It was a core belief of many prominent Democrats, including the party’s standard-bearer. And it grew out of this belief that the party had the permanent upper hand. But in the 2016 campaign, Clinton couldn’t match Obama’s outstanding performance with nonwhite voters or his respectable showing with white non-college voters, leading to a collapse of the Electoral College “Blue Wall” in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Biden is running a campaign based on de-polarization, treading very lightly on divisive cultural issues and eagerly welcoming support from Republicans tired of Trump. However, Biden’s shift from the last two Democratic campaigns is in tone, not substance. He hasn’t diluted the party’s position on abortion; he just talks about it infrequently. He’s subtly inviting pro-life voters who have soured on Trump to feel more comfortable crossing party lines.
Recently the New York Times interviewed just such a Republican voter. “You’d think I’d be glad to hear that [Trump] nominated a judge who is pro-life,” this voter said. “But I think what we need more than anything else is someone who is broadly pro-life, not just worried about the unborn, but about the living.”
Politico talked to two women at an event for a Michigan Democratic congresswoman who described themselves as longtime Republicans primarily because of their abortion views, but have since rethought their party affiliation. “I’ve had it with this idea that you’re only pro-life if you fight against abortion,” said one. “I can’t be that single-issue Republican anymore.” With Biden turning down the temperature on abortion, even in the face of a hotly contested Supreme Court nomination, some pro-life voters are finding it easier to voice nuanced views and shed any sense of obligation to choose a political team based on one’s abortion position.
Biden can be quite blunt when talking about race, even calling Trump a “racist” to his face in last week’s debate. But he consistently balances his rhetoric on racism with reminders of his own white working-class roots. During a CNN town hall in Pennsylvania last month, Biden was asked if he benefited from “white privilege.” Biden responded without hesitation, “Sure, I’ve benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my black brothers and sisters have had to go through.” But recognizing that many in the white working class bristle at the notion that they are privileged, Biden quickly added, “Grow up here in Scranton, we’re used to guys who look down their nose at us. … We are as good as anybody else. And guys like Trump, who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited, are the people that I’ve always had a problem with.” Without crudely equating the black and white working-class experiences, Biden is attempting to display understanding of both and close the racial divide.
If Biden’s de-polarization strategy works as intended, and polls show it is, he will win with a geographically broad coalition. In fact, if Biden wins everywhere he is leading in the RealClearPolitics averages as of Saturday, he will win 375 Electoral College votes, 10 more than Obama did in his historic 2008 victory.
A President Biden would certainly have challenges in maintaining a big tent party while being pressed by his left flank to move, and speak, aggressively on a slew of fronts. But if successful, the Republican Electoral College advantage would be no more.
The Republican skew manifested first in 2000, as Al Gore’s environmental and gun control record — and Bill Clinton’s personal behavior — eroded gains Clinton had made in the Sunbelt and the Midwest. Even though Gore won the popular vote, with the help of the Supreme Court he lost Florida and the Electoral College.
But Democrats are not without their own Electoral College advantages. In 2004, if 60,000 Ohioans who voted for George W. Bush had voted instead for John Kerry – out of 5.6 million votes cast – Kerry would have become president without a popular vote majority. Democrats have won 20 states, and Washington, D.C., three times in row, totaling 232 electoral votes. Democrats may have “wasted votes” in densely populated states like California, New York and Illinois, but that also gives Democrats a big head start in any election year.
Republicans have won 22 states three times in row, but only get 179 electoral votes out of them. And some of those Republican states — Arizona, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina — have shown signs of shift, with Democratic House or Senate gains in 2018 and surprisingly close margins in presidential or Senate trial heat polling. If one or more of these states turns firmly blue, while no currently blue states becomes less so, the Republican Party will be at a massive disadvantage, irrespective of the small shift in electoral votes that will come after the 2020 census.
Perhaps American democracy would be better off without the Electoral College, but that day is highly unlikely to ever come, as both parties would have to see the wisdom in abolishment at the same time to enact the necessary constitutional amendment, or adopt any sort of workaround on a state-by-state basis. Fortunately for Democrats, they are perfectly capable of winning the Electoral College this year. And after 2020, if Democrats can continue to avoid the pitfalls of polarization, winning may become even easier.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.