Friday, November 09, 2012

Let's Not Forget How the Game is Scored

In sport, a team that has reached a point at which it is guaranteed victory may hesitate to run up the score. A win is a win and, absent the opportunity to set a new record, genuine concern about a late comeback, or a similarly reasonable reason to do so, it's widely viewed as poor sportsmanship.

Politics isn't sport, but a win remains a win. Save for the possibility of a recount, the outcome of an election predicated on the popular vote doesn't change based upon whether you win by 1 vote or 1,000,000 votes. If one strategy gives you a 75% chance at winning with 55% of the vote, and another gives you a 90% strategy of winning with 51% of the vote, the latter strategy is the better bet. When Karl Rove dreams of a "permanent Republican majority", or at least a semi-permanent majority, while I'm sure he would be happy if it were 75% or more, or even 55%, he'll take 51%.

Let's also recall, the presidency is not decided based upon the popular vote. It's decided based upon the Electoral College, and the Republican Party is very much focused on preserving that institution. Not because they're truly worried about voter fraud, but because the manner in which electors are assigned to states and subsequently chosen by voters benefits them. Do away with the electoral college and even in swing states the focus will be on major population centers. If you're trying to maximize the popular vote, your priorities will be very different than if you're trying to maximize the electoral vote.

When you watch a football game and you see a score of 21-18, that's a close game. If you see a score of 21-9, not so close. But the first score may be three touchdowns versus six field goals, and the second three touchdowns versus three field goals. Would you be tempted to say that the losing team "really won" the first game and "really tied" the second, based upon the number of times each team scored? Well, if it's your team you might be tempted, but your friends are going to laugh at you if you try to persuade them that you're right.

The Electoral College works in a similar way. You get a certain number of electors for each state you win, mostly on a "winner takes all" basis. So you plan your victory based upon the number of electoral votes you can accumulate. You put enough resources into safe states to keep them in your column, but you focus your recourses on getting your supporters to the polls in the states in which you believe you'll win - or lose - by a narrow margin. When a state does not appear to be in play, it won't get much attention from either candidate - you don't want to waste time and money on a sure win or sure loss when you can better use your resources in a swing state.

When Kevin Drum lectures,
Liberals, you should rein in the triumphalism. Obama won a narrow 51-49 percent victory and the composition of Congress changed only slightly. This was not a historic vindication of liberalism, and it doesn't mean that we can suddenly decide that demography will sweep us to victory for the next couple of decades.
I thus agree in part and disagree in part. If there are people on the far left of the Democratic Party who believe that the nation is now ready for the roll-out of their agenda, they are in for a rude awakening. If the Republican Party gets its act together, it could be a bona fide contender in the next presidential race - and even if it doesn't it remains a serious contender for the midterm elections.


Obama did not win "a narrow 51-49 percent victory". Assuming Florida certifies for Obama, as it is likely to do, he won a landslide 332-206 victory. Because the victory is not based upon "number of states one" or "percentage of votes case". The victory is based upon the number of electors won. Had the Obama team reallocated its resources, it could have lost the election while winning 55% or more of the popular vote. Frankly, Romney could have done the same thing, but would likely have been rewarded by an even greater loss in the electoral vote. So yes, remember the popular vote and that the nation is divided on a lot of important issues - but don't pretend that the popular vote is significant to, or somehow trumps, the result of the electoral vote as that's not how the game is scored and obviously that's not how the game is won.


  1. It looks like Romney thought he actually had a strategy to win the electoral vote and take 55% of the popular vote.

  2. Gingrich was predicting a "landslide" with Romney getting @53% of the popular vote. It's a landslide if a Republican gets a tiny majority of the popular vote, it's a "mandate" if a Republican wins with fewer votes (or seats) than in the last election, but Democrats? They need to be humble.

  3. D's squirrel food11/14/12, 6:49 PM

    Whoa there! Field goals are worth 3 points each!


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