2012 Electoral College Fun

One of the best-known (yet most misunderstood) institutions of the American political system is the Electoral College.  And love it or hate it (polls indicate that a large majority of Americans hate it), the Electoral College is the medium through which we ultimately pick our Presidents.

The Electoral College is a system in which each state is given a number of votes equal to the given state’s total Congressional representation (members of the House of Representatives plus the two Senators).  Every state but two cast all of their electoral votes for the winner of the popular vote in the state.  (Maine and Nebraska apportion their votes according to who won each Congressional district, with an additional two for the winner of the state at large.)  And from now until Election Day, political junkies and policy wonks across the country will be dissecting the Electoral College, attempting to predict how the chips will ultimately fall.

Many states (think Massachusetts, California and Connecticut) are practically guaranteed to vote Democratic, while others (think Utah, Wyoming and Idaho) are undeniably going to vote Republican.  The 2012 election will likely be decided by a small number of toss-up states, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

2008 was by all accounts an electoral blowout.  But the Electoral College can be deceiving.  Even though President Obama won just 52.8% of the popular vote, he won 67.8% of the electoral votes.  Moreover, nearly all pundits believe that 2012 will be a much closer election than 2008 — thanks in part to high unemployment, slow economic growth and the divisive healthcare reform law.

Although much can and will change between now and November of 2012, it is still interesting to look at some possible 2012 Electoral College scenarios.  (Most of the maps presented below assume a Republican nominee palatable to most Americans, such as Mitt Romney.  This may not be the case if, for example, Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich wins the Republican nomination.)

(Note to readers: the maps used in this Blog post were made on the website 270toWin.com, which we strongly encourage you to visit, and the article was inspired by similar stories from NYT.com and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, two wonderful sites for political commentary.)


First of all, let’s examine changes to the electoral map since the President’s 2008 win.  Thanks to new information from the decennial census, several electoral votes have been reapportioned in order to better represent the current population (Texas, for example, gained four electoral votes while Ohio lost two).  Accordingly, if President Obama were to win every state in which he claimed victory in 2008 (and the single electoral vote he won from Nebraska), his 2012 total would be 359 electoral votes (down from 365).


One possible outcome occurs if President Obama can hold his ground in all the states won by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, but loses seven battleground states won by then-President Bush in both elections (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia) and all of Nebraska’s electoral votes.  In this case, as in 2000 and 2004, the democrat loses the election.

Just for fun, let’s look at a map envisioning a Democratic blowout.  Though highly unlikely, such an outcome is possible if the economy continues to improve and President Obama wins every state he won in 2008, and triumphs in Georgia, Arizona and Texas (where Obama advisors brag that an influx of young and minority voters can catapult the President to a surprising victory).

Why not also envision a scenario in which unemployment creeps back in double digits, young, Jewish and Hispanic voters are all dissatisfied with the President, and Republican voters are enthused for Election Day?  Although elector-rich states like California, New York, Washington and the President’s home state of Illinois will still likely go for the incumbent, the same cannot be said for most other states.  Accordingly, if the cookie crumbles this way, a Republican landslide is very likely.

Nevertheless, quite nearly every politico in the country is imagining a significantly closer election in 2012 than in 2008.  There are several scenarios in which President Obama and his Republican challenger tie, and the House of Representatives decides the winner, with each state delegation receiving one vote.  (As Republicans currently control a majority of Congressional delegations, a tie would ultimately lead to a victory for President Obama’s challenger).

However, as 270toWin.com points out, “It is important to note that an apparent tie on election night does not mean that there is actually a tie.  The actual Electors meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December … to cast their votes.  Only about half the states have laws requiring their Electors to vote for the popular vote winner.  It is possible that an Elector could cast his or her vote for another person.  As long as that vote wasn’t for the other major candidate in the race, this wouldn’t be an issue — neither candidate would have 270.  However, imagine a scenario where a single Elector in a single state switched their vote to the other party — the vote would be 270 – 268.  While very unlikely, it has happened before (most recently in 1968, although the election that year wasn’t close).”

Regardless, here are two of the several plausible scenarios in which both President Obama and his Republican challenger receive 269 electoral votes.  In the first, the President loses much of the South and West, but manages to hang onto Ohio.  In the second, the President implodes in the Midwest (where unemployment is assumed to be extremely high), but holds on to more diverse states like Florida, Virginia and Nevada.


Here is a scenario in which President Obama loses several states he won in 2008, including most of those that were won by neither Al Gore nor John Kerry, but manages to hold on to Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia (all of which have large minority populations and strong democratic campaign apparatuses).  Under these circumstances, the President wins by a nose.

Here is a scenario in which, conversely, the Republicans snag back Iowa, Ohio and the Southern states and barely edge out the President.

Florida has in recent years played an increasingly important role in the Presidential election.  The Democrats could barely retain the White House if President Obama wins either all of the state won by Al Gore in 2000, plus Florida, or all of the states won by John Kerry in 2004, plus Florida.


This exercise, of course, has been all fun and speculation.  Despite what anyone may tell you, it is just about impossible to accurately predict the outcome of a Presidential election from eleven months out.  The economy’s slow rebound could dramatically gain steam, a brokered convention could scar the Republican Party, a Ralph Nader-like figure could emerge, or any number of other factors could come into play.  Still, even with all of the uncertainty, it’s never too early to start thinking about electoral math!


Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. The Constitution does not dictate that presidential elections have to be this way.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via nationalpopularvoteinc

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *