Monday, November 8, 2010

Mythbusting with the Electoral College

It turns out you can debunk a few political legends with a quick glance at Electoral College results.  Examples:
  • Lincoln only won in 1860 because the Democratic Party was fragmented. Actually, Lincoln won 180 electoral votes -- almost 60% of the Electoral College.  Even if all three strains of the Democratic Party had somehow unified behind one candidate, Lincoln still would have won.  There were just far more voters in the free states.
  • Kennedy only won in 1960 thanks to Chicago's Mayor Daley rigging the Illinois election.  Nope.  Kennedy beat Nixon by 84 electoral votes, and Illinois only accounts for 27 of those.  Even if you give Illinois to Nixon, Kennedy's still president.
Update: For more on the 1860 election and its relation to the secession movement, please see this excellent piece by Susan Schulten, who, unlike me, actually does know what the hell she's talking about.  Interesting point here:
A vote for Southern Democrats did not always predict secession. While a majority in Delaware and Maryland voted Southern Democrat, those states remained loyal. Conversely, in Tennessee Bell actually defeated Breckinridge, even though that state seceded in early June. Kentucky and North Carolina were split between the two parties, and while the former remained in the Union, the latter did not. The winner-take-all model of the Electoral College obscures this complexity.


Robert said...

So, I went back to check your math on the 1860 election. I was thinking that your thesis didn't account for the possibility that some of the states that Lincoln won might have changed hands if all of Democratic votes were counted together. And there are two states - California and Oregon - where that would have happened, but not enough to change the result. So you're right.

But, something else I saw when I looked at voting in that election at the state level shocked me. In several deep south states - Florida, Mississippi and Georgia among them - the recorded vote total for Lincoln was "0." That is, across the entire deep south region, there was not one displaced northerner, Union sympathizer, or nascent abolitionist who cast a ballot for Lincoln. This seems unfathomable to me.

Seth Masket said...

My assumption is that Lincoln, and the Republican Party, was not on the ballot in most southern states. So he could have only received votes by write-in ballot. It's possible he did get a few, but still less than half a percent or so.

Also, this is before the Australian ballot. I don't know a ton about how voting was conducted in the South during this time period, but if it involved any sort of public declaration of support for a candidate, no wonder Lincoln's vote was at 0.

Jonathan Bernstein said...

I don't know about local variations, but it generally involved party workers standing outside polling places with filled in ballots, which they would hand to voters, who would then take the ballot and turn them in inside. Still, you could scratch out the official party candidate and write in your own, or in many cases the party workers would do that if they didn't like the official party candidate -- preventing that was a prime reason that they switched to the Australian ballot. All this from Alan Ware's book, The American Direct Primary. I'll be writing more about this, I think, later this week, because it's relevant to the CO-Gov race.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure it fits your pattern, but (in yet another book) Ware argues that it's a myth that Wilson was elected because of the GOP split.

jjhukill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jjhukill said...

That deleted comment was mine. Looks like I was signed in to the wrong Blogger account.

Anyway, the crux of my statement was this: Lincoln didn't appear on the ballot in any of the Deep South states. That's why no votes were recorded for him.

However, we can assume he would have received damn near zero votes anyway. In Virginia and Kentucky, southern/border states where Lincoln's name did actually appear, he got right around 1% of the vote.

John said...

The Constitutional Unionists were not by any means a strain of the Democratic Party. They were basically the remnants of the old Whig Party in the south (people like their presidential candidate John Bell), along with a few old Know Nothings who had once been Democrats (like Sam Houston), and some Northern Whigs who were too conservative to join the Republicans (like their vice-presidential candidate, Edward Everett). Not Democrats in the slightest.

Rich Rostrom said...

Seth: In many areas, voting was by public declaration, and voters often added rhetorical flourishes as in:

"I, Daniel Hopkins, cast my vote
against that depraved reptile Henry Clay, and for the noblest of Tennessee statesmen, James K. Polk!"

Rich Rostrom said...

One correction: Lincoln won 169 EV by state majorities. He carried CA (4 EV) and OR (3 EV) by pluralities, and won 4 of the 7 EV of NJ, even though Douglas actually had more votes there. (The situation is actually even more complicated, as the "Douglas" electors were a fusion slate.)

More importantly: while Lincoln would still have won if all the other candidates' votes had been for one person, had there been only one Democrat candidate, it is highly unlikely that he would have gotten only the votes cast for the two rival Democrats.

The Democratic party split was seen at the time as insuring a Republican victory. Indeed that was almost certainly the purpose of the Southern Democrats in running their separate ticket - by electing a Republican, they hoped to trigger secession.

That many of them expected the split to elect a Republican was shown as early as the Charleston convention.

Editor Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial was there; he wrote

I hear it stated here a hundred times a day, by the most orthodox Democrats and rampant Southerners, "[Senator] William H. Seward [(R-NY)] will be the next President of the United States." And I have heard this remark several times from South Carolinians: "I'll be damned if I don't believe Seward will make a good President."

The counter-implication of this is that all these people thought a united Democratic Party would win the election. They could do electoral arithmetic as well as we can today, so they knew that carrying the South, the Border, and the Far West would not be enough.

The difference is that they thought the united party would carry some northern states as well - an expectation I think was correct.

The effects of the division included the division, dissipation, and decline of Democrat campaigning in the northern states. Without the prospect of victory, there was no expectation of patronage awards later.

Furthermore, the Buchanan administration, which controlled Federal patronage in the North, used it on behalf of Breckinridge, not Douglas, whom Buchanan opposed.

On the other side, the prospect of victory and its "spoils" energized Republicans.

Had the Democrats united behind Douglas, he would have carried CA and OR, swept the EV of NJ, and IMO also carried IL and NY. NY alone would have given Douglas the win.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The ability of the electoral college to make a chose a clear victor in a race where voters are fragmented on regional lines and the most popular candidate wins less than 40% of the vote, is, of course at the heart of its design purpose to make Presidential succession clear, even if it is arguably not right.

Even when the electoral college leaves the winner in the hands of one or two states that are very close (as it didn't in the Kennedy election, but did in the Bush v. Gore election), at least one only has to get the count right in one or two states, rather than nationwide.

If the founders had opted for a parliamentary system, Democratic candidates might have mobilized in Northern states in some districts in 1860 and formed coalitions with Southerners to form a government. But, we could also have ended up with the kind of prolonged stalemate and lack of leadership that Iraq is experiencing in its time of crisis right now as a result of its overconstrained constitution that makes it impossible to secure a majority for any one Presidential candidate or prime minister.

Congressional deadlock of the kind we will have starting in January, of course, is far less damaging when you have a Presidential form of government and no doubt about who is the President.