How Trump is Breaking America’s Electoral System

 /  March 10, 2019, 4:07 p.m.


The Capitol

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential loss, the RNC released a “post mortem” report that sought to diagnose the problems that led to Romney’s loss. It suggested that the Republican party move to appeal to constituencies which it had lost in past elections:

“We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform … If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only … If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”

In a conference announcing the brief, RNC chairman Reince Priebus explained: “The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic or community or region of this country.” Through a careful rhetorical strategy designed to show how the party could be more inclusive, the post mortem set out guidelines for the Republicans to make inroads with minorities, millennials, and poorer voters.

Then came Donald Trump, who broke all of the instructions that the post mortem stated. From “bad hombres” to the “big, beautiful wall,” Trump came through on exactly the sort of divisive language that the post mortem report warned would shrink the party. Yet at the same time, Trump expanded the Republican party message to a group that the party had sometimes ignored.

Trump’s Unearthed Constituency

White working class support for the Republican party surged in 2016. These were voters who were older, less educated, more likely to be poor, and many of them had not voted in previous election cycles. This constituency saw a huge swing to the right: in 1996, Bill Clinton won half of white working class counties, while in 2016, Hillary Clinton won only two, with Trump taking the other 658. These voters were keys to Trump’s electoral success: in voting districts where Trump won more support than Romney, it was because of white working class voters who defected from Obama in 2014 to Trump in 2016.

Trump, however, received a smaller share of the national electoral vote than Romney did four years ago. For all the media coverage that Obama-Trump voters have garnered, they are outnumbered by Romney-Clinton voters. Romney-Clinton voters are well educated, professional, and more often women than men. Most importantly, however, they are predominately suburban.

The urban-rural divide provides the crux for why Trump’s political strategy was successful, while Romney’s was not. Even just a few percentage points more of support in rural areas was enough to flip states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan over to Trump. Trump’s strategy pinpoints one of the most controversial aspects of the American political system: it doesn’t matter just how many voters you have behind you, but where those voters are.

The Power of Place

Our political system shows the bias towards voter placement in several ways. Obviously, we elect candidates from geographic districts, both for the House of Representatives and for state-level positions. What’s often highlighted on the national level is the way in which each state is given the same number of Senate seats. This is incorporated into the Electoral College, which combines House and Senate seats together to decide the relative voting power of each state, and thus systematically gives more influence to voters in smaller states.

This equality in the Senate is a result of one of the compromises written into America’s Constitution: in the years after American independence, states were more like countries within the EU than divisions within a single country, and many states resisted a powerful federal government. Smaller states like Rhode Island and Georgia were afraid of the power large states like Virginia and South Carolina—it’s notable that the distinction cuts across north-south lines. The compromise was not a result of slavery or of partisanship, but of the historical independence that states had from the federal government.

Which states gain the most from this arrangement? A glance at the list of overrepresented states shows a red-blue alternation: Wyoming, then Vermont, then Alaska, then Hawaii, then North Dakota, then Rhode Island. It’s almost entirely either deep red western states or deep blue northeastern states. The partisan split has not always been the same: if we consider the election of 1896, just over a hundred years ago, it’s pro-business Republicans who always win the Northeast while progressive Democrats are rooted in the Great Plains. Regardless, what makes these states stand out on a modern demographic map is a few shared traits: they are much more rural and have a greater share of white voters than the average.

The other states that have outsized influence are “swing states.” Both Senate elections and the Electoral College are winner-take-all. Whether the margin of victory in the Senate is a hundred votes or a hundred thousand, only the winner gets any political power. Likewise, states in the Electoral College are won by whoever gets the most votes there, and the winner of that state gets all the votes that the state has (two smaller states give the loser a part of their votes). The result is that a thousand votes in California isn’t worth very much, as they likely won’t make much difference, but a thousand votes in Iowa is extremely valuable, as it could be enough to flip the entire state.

If you look at the list of common swing states, they again have the same traits. With the exception of Florida and perhaps a few others, most swing states are like Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, or Ohio: relatively white, and relatively rural, compared to the average.

The Midterms and the Urban-Rural Divide

With the above advantages laid out, it’s easy to see why the modern Republican party is courting the rural vote more and more under Trump’s direction, even as they lose votes in urban areas.

The 2018 midterm elections is emblematic of this. Suburban Republicans were almost all defeated, with Democrats sweeping former Republican strongholds like Orange County, the LA suburb where Republicans lost seven seats. With the defeat of Republican Dan Donovan in NY District 11 (representing Staten Island), Republicans no longer have a single seat in a truly urban area.

There were pickups as well, with Republicans taking seats from Democrats in rural areas. In the Senate, Republicans won seats in rural North Dakota and Missouri, as well as Florida, a narrow win in a state with both heavily rural and heavily urban areas. They lost a seat in Arizona, a state which has become more and more urbanized in recent years.

In the short term, the strategy has helped the Republicans gain in the Senate, even as they take losses in the House and slip in terms of the popular vote. The worry long term is that Republicans will keep holding onto political power while continuing to lose the popular vote. Electoral college winners that lose the popular vote have only come around five times in the almost 250 years of American democracy, but the controversial elections of George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump only sixteen years later could be a sign that the trend is accelerating.

There’s some debate as to the negative impact of the Electoral College misaligning with the popular vote. As Matthew J. Franck at the National Review points out, the Electoral College is working as intended. America was founded as a union of states, and the federal government draws its legitimacy not only from the consent of the people but also from the consent of the states. The president is supposed to represent the entire country, so it isn’t unreasonable to want presidential candidates to appeal to different geographic reasons, whereas a simple majority vote might see candidates only campaigning in the most populous areas. The Framers of the Constitution absolutely intended for the Electoral College to overrule majority rule.

Still, although it has happened a few times in America’s history, no one likes to see the incoming president lose the popular vote. On principle, a democracy should follow the will of the majority of the people. In practice, a president without a popular vote win lacks a strong democratic mandate, which can hinder their ability to govern. Legislators from the opposing party, for example, are less likely to work with a president who they don’t think most of the population likes, which could impact the power of the President to get much done.

Is the System Unfair?

The abolition of the electoral college has gained a following among Democrats, first after the 1968 election and then after the contested election in 2000. But the roots of the problem are deeper than the Electoral College. The Senate is still elected based on states, and even if Republicans control only the Senate, they still be able to stall a President’s agenda, as they did for much of Obama’s term in office. Yet getting rid of the Senate entirely is not on the table, nor is undoing the fundamental compromise that made the Senate necessary.

This is why some on the left have imagined what it would look like to simply redraw the maps of the states. One of the most famous maps was produced by an urban planner named Neil Freeman, and redivided the United States into fifty states of equal population. Freeman returned in a 2016 piece to draw a few new maps, based on datasets representing where Americans lived, worked, and drew their social circles. Although these maps were always intended as provocation rather than serious political proposals, they’re fascinating to reflect on. The new states are strangely compacted but perhaps more fair. Long-standing disputes are resolved: upstate New York is usually grouped more with Great Lakes or Northeastern states than New York City, and the Florida Panhandle and Miami hardly ever share the same state. Monolithic political blocks are broken up. In most maps, one subdivision in Texas turns blue; in one, a new West Coast state turns red.

What’s surprising about these maps is how many of them—one based on daily commutes, one based on proximity to cities, and the original map—still give Trump a majority in the Electoral College, sometimes a significant one. This highlights one way in which the current map actually benefits urban areas. In many states, a large city coexists with a big swath of more rural area, as with Chicago and southern Illinois, or the previously mentioned cases in New York and Florida. Here, there are enough city votes to overpower rural voters. When these maps disentangle these historical accidents, and group cities with only their immediate areas, the largest cities almost become states unto themselves. Rural areas tend to get grouped with smaller cities, where the rural votes instead overpower urban votes. This isn’t an intentional result of these maps, most of which are drawn with large datasets or mathematical algorithms. Instead, this consequence reflects the much deeper roots of the problem.

Gerrymandering

Rural voters are more spread out than urban ones, and it makes a big difference. The political data website FiveThirtyEight conducted a project on the optimal gerrymandering scheme to suit both parties, and to serve a variety of non-partisan goals. Not only did the Republican gerrymander produce more safe red seats than the Democratic gerrymander, but every one of the nonpartisan maps gave Republicans an advantage. This doesn’t represent how gerrymandering happens in practice so much as how it could happen. In other words, it shows how the process of drawing political boundaries inherently favors Republicans, because rural voters are by nature more spread out.

To think about why this is, imagine a state with an equal population of Republicans and Democrats, with an equal balance between rural and urban areas. Let’s say that eight in ten Democrats live in urban areas, and seven in ten Republicans live in rural areas. No matter how you draw the districts, it will be difficult to avoid giving the Republicans the advantage. They’ll win rural elections by a smaller margin than Democrats win urban elections, but this is a good thing. In our electoral system, winning more than half the votes is what matters. Any votes cast beyond that are “wasted.” The three Republicans that voted in urban areas wasted their vote by backing a losing candidate, sure, but so did the four Democrats who did not need to vote for their candidate to win.

Political scientists have developed a measure called the efficiency gap to measure how such votes are wasted. This measure could detect gerrymandering by showing how one party forced to waste votes by a map that “packs” them into a concentrated area or “cracks” their coalition by spreading out votes over districts that they won’t win. Yet the political geography of the country leads Democratic voters to already concentrate themselves more than is politically optimal.

A political map based on the efficiency gap would probably look something like the FiveThirtyEight map in the above project, which is designed to maximize competitive races. Critics would object to such a radical change. After all, your representatives should be local to you, and should understand and be responsive to local issues. Yet with only a little more than one in eight districts being competitive, many representatives don’t have to do much work to win once the primary is over. A map in which almost half the districts are competitive would force candidates to be much more responsive to voter concerns as they fight to win swing votes in a close election, and would give voters much more choice at the ballot box. But such a practice would result in strangely shaped electoral districts that correspond to nothing geographically beyond a solution to a mathematical algorithm.

Thinking Ahead

Leaving political districting aside, much of the ire on the topic of rural overrepresentation comes from the use of the Electoral College in presidential elections. Many would like see it abolished, but again, the prospects for such a radical proposal end up looking dim. Abolishing the Electoral College would be the biggest constitutional change since the direct election of senators was adopted more than a hundred years ago. That means it would need two thirds of all states on board to be viable, which is difficult even for the most popular political proposals. Even taking away the partisan valence, a huge hurdle on its own, most small states and swing states know that the Electoral College is a good deal for them.

A more plausible change might be for more states to follow the lead of New Hampshire and Nebraska. They allocate one electoral vote for the winner of each of their electoral districts, and two to the winner of the state overall. Other states could adopt this plan or similar proposals, even going so far as to split their votes proportionally based on electoral results. The beneficiaries of the electoral system might not go for this result, nor is it likely that we’ll see California or Texas letting the other party have some of their votes. But there are plenty of states that get little to no attention from presidential candidates, and switching away from a winner-take-all voting system is an easy way to invite more competition over your state’s voters. The fifty states are America’s “laboratories of democracy,” so the best way to achieve reform is often to try it out in individual states.

Another proposal that could actually make progress on the national level is what’s known as the Wyoming Rule. The smallest state, Wyoming has only about half a million people, yet is allowed one representative in the House. Montana has over a million people, nearly twice Wyoming’s population, and has exactly the same representation. Rhode Island has only sixty thousand more people than Montana but has two representatives. The Wyoming Rule would add 133 seats to the House of Representatives, balancing out such that each representative represents about the same number of people as the representative from Wyoming does. The number of people in the House of Representatives has changed fourteen times before, growing from an original sixty-five to 435, the number it has been fixed to since 1929. Because of this, all Congress would need to do is pass a law with a simple majority to have it changed. Since thirty-nine out of fifty states would see an increase in their representation, and no representation would be taken away, it would be easier to build consensus for this than something like Electoral College abolition, which has clear winners and losers.

Ultimately, time will tell if any reforms of this kind build up significant momentum. It may be that a Republican party steered by Trump continues to lean in to the rural vote, and this strategy continues to deliver victories by unseating rural Democrats at the expense of suburban Republicans. But a serious mismatch between popular vote totals and political representation is not sustainable, and may fuel radical actions further. A series of elections in which the winner of the popular vote loses in the Electoral College could lead to a situation in which outright abolition of the Electoral College is politically feasible. Otherwise, it may just produce a loss of faith in America’s democratic institutions.

A more optimistic route is likely, though. Serious tensions exist in the Republican party after the 2018 midterms, and not everyone likes the strategy that Trump is pursuing. Appealing to a minority of the population, as well a less educated part, makes the pool of talent that the party has to draw on smaller, and makes it harder to recruit good candidates. Indeed, one of the worst effects of the strengthening urban rural divide is that competitive races for both parties are less common, giving voters less choice and political candidates less of a chance to test their campaigning skills.

The best and most likely solution to these problems is a voluntary detente where Republicans and Democrats agree that the costs of exploiting this feature of our democracy outweigh the benefits. In the past few decades, our politics have slid towards a more cutthroat orientation, with Democrats and Republicans exploiting every advantage they can find, regardless of the consequences for the country. It doesn’t have to be like this. It may seem difficult to imagine in this political moment, but for hundreds of years American democracy has flourished under the premise that both parties need to respect each other and the democratic principles that hold together our government. In the end, it falls on both parties to build coalitions of voters that can sweep them to the White House and into Congress with a strong mandate.

The image featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original can be found here.


Sam Owens

Sam Owens is a second-year Economics major. This past summer, he worked at the Immune Deficiency Foundation, a patient advocacy group for individuals with primary immune deficiencies. On campus, he is communications director for the College Republicans, volunteers for New Americans, and participates in the Writer's Workshop.


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