A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

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:

  1. 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.’)
  2. 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.

Not Nearly Enough Change I Can Believe In

Yesterday’s post and Dan Kaufman’s comment on it, have prompted me to pen some thoughts on Barack Obama (and elections).

In 2008, I made two separate donations of $50 to Barack Obama’s campaign. I also drove down with some friends to Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania and spent the day walking around several neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and talking to residents about their possible election choices, thus helping the Obama campaign build up a map of voting patterns that they could use in estimating their chances in the region. I’d like to think that in some small way, I actively helped Obama’s victory in the elections that followed. I took these actions because, besides  wanting to vote for Obama in New York State, I wanted to contribute as much as I could elsewhere, to help the Obama campaign in the so-called swing states.  My vote in New York, a state that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, and where Obama was all but guaranteed the Electoral College votes, didn’t feel like that it would be that useful to Obama; at most it could help some him make some talking points about the size of his mandate.

By late 2008, as the elections approached, I was alarmed in a way that I had not been in 2004 (when I had voted for John Kerry). In 2004, I had merely voted; that was the extent of my involvement in the election process. But in 2008, I might have been described as a member of ‘the energized base’. I was ‘energized’ by Sarah Palin, by eight years of GW Bush, by the chance for change that I saw in Obama’s election. Back then, I was happy Obama had trumped Hilary Clinton’s campaign; even though her election would have been a historic event, I was made just a tad bit uneasy by her connection with the ‘old’ Democrats. Thus, I should have been more alarmed than I was by Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as vice-president; it was the first serious indicator, for me at least, that this candidate would indulge in a great deal of the ‘ol same-‘ol, same-‘ol.

Some three years on, as this election season heats up, and writing the day after Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage,  my disappointment remains acute. The language of betrayal is tempting, but I’m too weary to deploy it. Rather I’m inclined to think that I’ve just been reminded of the cartel-like nature of party politics in our nation, and of the disappointing inability of politicians to recognize where historical opportunities lie. Obama could have been a great one-term president; he has chosen, instead, to aspire to be a disappointing two-term president. I do not think I will send $100 to his campaign this year, and I most certainly will not take the time to go door-knocking for him in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. I wonder how many there are like me, and how much that will hurt Obama (Obama will have gained some new supporters in these past few years and perhaps they will be enough to get him over the finish line.) But I do not intend to fall for the tired old Democratic line ‘if you don’t vote for us, the bad old Republicans will come to power’. I do not feel like voting for Obama, and I certainly do not intend to vote Republican. Perhaps the Working Families Party? Who knows? November is still a long way away.

But there is a far more fundamental problem in all of this: it centers on my disillusionment with elections–especially in modern politics in this nation–and with my evolving understanding of my political responsibilities. More on that in a follow-up post tomorrow.