Today on Up! With Chris they got into the weeds of the Electoral College, they whys and the wherefores. It's being discussed again because 1) it's a Presidential election year, and the polls are close enough that there is no easy narrative for the press, requiring all sorts of speculation, and 2) there does actually seem to be the possibility that Obama could lose the popular vote yet win the Electoral College (and the Presidency) thanks to the quality of his campaigning in the precious swing states.
There's a lot of language in that paragraph regarding the preciousness of the swing states. I confess my expecations for the segment on the show were low, given that as a New Yorker I'm very much used to the concept that my vote in Presidential elections is less meaningful than a Floridian's, or an Ohioan's. (If they call themselves something else, I beg their forgiveness and their indulgence.) I've long known that if the election were based on popular vote instead of the electoral college my vote would matter more.
But Hayes took it in directions I'd never gone: that an election based on popular vote would reshape the campaigns' positions. In prepared remarks he talked about the number of people living in the Bronx, and how many of them felt their living situations were fragile; that this might raise the prominence of homelessness as a campaign issue. Understandably, he said that the number of people who care about homelessness was as equal (if not more) to the number caring about coal mining in Ohio. But with New York being reliably Blue, no candidate was going to cater to those living in the Bronx. A fair point, I thought.
It was only when he put the shoe on the other foot, discussing a GOP nominee appealing to Alabamans, that I saw the limits of the argument. His hypothetical GOP nominee, in a hypothetical Presidential election determined by popular vote, Hayes posited, would be inclined to swing even further to the right to appeal to Alabamans than he might otherwise.
It was here where I saw the problem. You know the joke about the two guys running away from the tiger? Where the faster one says he doesn't need to out run the tiger, he only needs to out run his fellow prey? In a national election determined by popularity, all that matters is relative positioning. A GOP candidate doesn't need to swing hard right to win the votes of Alabamans, he only needs to be more conservative than his Democratic opponent. Vice versa with the Democrat and voters in the Bronx.
Now, here's the rub, even further, a point missed in Hayes's discussion. In a popular election, you're not dealing with campaigning to Alabamans, or Bronxites, or Hoosiers or whatevers. You're dealing with numbers of people, not geographically-designated groups of people, because they are not monolithic. You might be campaigning to people in a DMA because they are likely to see the same advertising, but to try to send a different message to the Birmingham DMA than the Bronx DMA is risky: we no longer live in a world where you can presume there won't be bleed. There are active groups who are attentive to your contradictions.
I still like the idea of abandoning the electoral college, I truly do. But not because I think it will revamp campaign messaging. Only because it will truly give me equal footing with a voter in any other state.
(Note, I wrote this on my laptop without the regular opportunities to proofread. Sorry.)