Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.
From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:
- It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
- If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.
The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.
It is a truism in electoral democracies that the electoral system–the particular methodology used to convert the individual choices of voters into a composite social choice–is a key determinant of electoral outcomes. Does the system allow you to rank all candidates by order of preference or does it ask you to only pick one candidate, your favorite? Can you assign numerical weights to the candidates or only a simple rank? And so on. The American first-past-the-post system ensures that the candidates with the most votes–not necessarily a majority of the polled votes–wins. In the presidential elections–thanks to the electoral college–this means that a candidate can be elected president without securing a numerical majority of the so-called popular vote. It also means that particular states and electoral districts–the so-called ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states–acquire a disproportionate importance in the presidential elections. This is why New York, which is expected to resolutely continue voting Democratic in the presidential election is steadfastly ignored on the campaign trail, while Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania received dozens of visits.
Thus, the supposed electability or unelectability of a particular candidate is not so much a matter of nationwide determination of that issue as much as it is a question of electability in particular states and particular electoral districts. In the past some analyses have suggested that a US presidential election can be swung, nationwide, by the polling results from as few as less than two dozen districts, scattered over a half a dozen states. In 2008 and 2012, part of the reason for the success of the Barack Obama campaign was a comprehensive statistical analysis of voting patterns and poll results that led to the campaign focusing its effort in precisely those states and those districts whose results would result in large numbers of electoral college votes going Obama’s way. (During the 2008 campaign, I spent a day knocking on doors in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a swing district in a swing state; Obama won there, a crucial factor in his final win in Pennsylvania and his eventual victory.)
All of which is to say that the greatest strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains his energetic and enthusiastic supporter base. They are willing and prepared to do the hard yards–in the all-important zones of decision. Though Sanders has been criminally ignored by the media in comparison to the other candidates, a win or two in the primaries will force greater coverage of his campaign and in all probability increase his fundraising revenues. Those monies will play a crucial role in sustaining the passion of those who ‘feel the Bern.’ And the smarts acquired during the Obama campaign are theirs to draw upon as well. Sanders’ greatest challenge lies in the Democratic primaries, in beating a candidate deemed ‘inevitable’; if he wins, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency will galvanize his support–and its fringes–even more. There is also the small matter of the fact that Sanders’ so-called ‘socialism’ has its own populist appeal, which will bring some Reagan Democrat-like voters back to the fold.
When the primaries are over, and the Democratic nomination is settled, some states will vote Democratic as they always have; some will vote Republican as they always do. The remaining states and their electoral districts will become the focus of the two parties’ campaigns; and the winner will be the one who has the hardest working campaign workers, concentrating and doubling down on their work in the places that ‘matter.’ Sanders’ campaign has an edge, in this regard, over every other candidate. Even Trump. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton were she to be nominated, would command an enthusiastic campaign force; it is just that the talk of Sanders unelectability simply do not take the considerations raised above into account while talking about his chances.