Do Republicans have an electoral-college problem?

Lots of people are speculating about it, so it’s really important to clarify what an electoral-college problem would look like.

The first key concept here is uniform swing. Usually, a national shift of, say, 5 percentage points toward one party works out to a shift of 5 points in Ohio, 5 points in Florida . . . and also 5 points in California and 5 points in Texas. Uniform swing.

If that’s the case — and it usually is, and more or less has been for the last several elections — then a party doesn’t have an electoral-college problem if it keeps losing the same states; it has, if anything, a national problem. That is: Whatever it would take for Republicans to do better in the swing states would also help Republicans nationally, so therefore they should think about national solutions.

The second concept, however, is an electoral-college bias — the possibility that one party might have an advantage in the electoral college, given uniform swing, if the national vote was dead even. That can happen if, for example, one party “wastes” lots of votes by running up huge margins in some states and the other doesn’t. Historically, that hasn’t really been the case.

However, in the last two elections, the Democrats seem to have opened up a bit of an electoral-college bias in their favor. As of now, Barack Obama has a 3.1-percentage-point lead in the national vote. If every state had shifted towards Mitt Romney by 4 full percentage points, Romney would have won the national vote and Florida, Ohio, and Virginia . . . and still lost the electoral college. In fact, he would have needed a 5-point shift in the national vote (giving him almost a 2-point lead) in order to win Colorado (and Pennsylvania) and thus the election.

Now, state-by-state swing is never perfectly uniform. And we don’t really know why Obama has opened up this edge; it’s possible that it’s the result of better get-out-the-vote in the swing states. But it’s also possible that it’s become a real effect of the way that Democrats and Republicans are distributed. If so, it’s a big deal; it means that Democrats start presidential elections with basically a 2-point advantage.

At any rate: That’s the effect worth talking about when it comes to electoral-college advantage.