The Washington Post

The clever myth of the small electorate

Paul Begala has a column out making the clever insider point that the U.S. doesn’t really have a national election; it has 51 state contests (hey, he forgot the District!), and of those, only a few will really decide the election, and that within them there are only a relative handful of undecided voters, and those are the ones who will really make a difference.

The American president will be selected by fewer than half the number of people who paid to get into a Houston Astros home game last year — and my beloved Astros sucked last year; they were the worst team in baseball. Put another way, there are about as many people in San Jose as there are swing voters who will decide this election. That’s not even as many people as attended Puerto Rican cockfights in the past year — although there are obvious similarities.

It’s a seductive idea, but it’s wrong on several counts.

First: Even on its own terms, it’s wrong in a couple of ways. Nate Silver currently lists not four (as Begala would have it) but ten states with at least a 2 percent chance of being the “tipping point” state. Now, it’s not especially likely that #10 on his list, Wisconsin, will really be the one to do it; Silver gives it only a 2.7 percent chance, and then the next five on his list have only a combined 1.8% chance of turning the election. Moreover, it’s not only voters who haven’t made up their minds who matter in those states; there’s also the question of turnout, and all of use, no matter how partisan, have some chance of not voting. So we’re really talking about all eligible voters in at least ten states, even though some are more likely to turn the election than others.

That’s not all. Suppose that Missouri, currently a fairly likely Republican state and unlikely (just 0.3 percent) to be the tipping state, suddenly lurched to Obama, independent from how other states shift. Is that likely? Nope. Is it possible? Sure — unlikely, but possible, just as a Romney surge in a likely Democratic state such as Minnesota is unlikely but possible. To say that the voters in those states don’t matter is only the case if one assumes that those sort of things can’t happen. So from that perspective, everyone in 15, maybe 20, states “count.”

But the opposite is also true, if looked at from a different point of view. After all, it’s not true that hundreds of thousands of voters in a handful of states will actually turn the election; the actual tipping point will be the single, lone, vote needed to push the one, single, tipping point state over the line. Sure, we don’t know who that voter will be, or even the state, but it’s still true. Or, we can think of it another way: no single vote will swing the election. Even in the 2000 election, Florida didn’t come down to a single vote; no specific voter can look back and take responsibility for that one. The chances that your vote will decide the presidential election are infinitely small, even if you’re lucky enough to live in Ohio. So, yeah, if you only want to vote if you’re going to “matter” in that sense, you might as well stay home (although first make sure that there aren’t any very close local elections – those sometimes do come down to a single vote).

And then . . . you can look at it yet another way, and realize that we do, after all, have national elections. While it’s possible for single states to move separately from the nation as a whole, as a rule they really don’t. On top of that, the general trends that make states a bit more Democratic or Republican don’t appear to be state-driven usually; it’s more likely that some demographic group will shift wherever they live, and move their states accordingly, than that some group will move only in one state. That is, if Barack Obama does a little worse with, say, young married women, he’ll probably do worse with them everywhere, but be particularly hurt by it in states that have more young married women.

The thing is that all of these perspectives are accurate. It depends on one’s perspective. The one that Begala sketches out — it’s all about a handful of voters in a handful of swing states — is true from the point of view of campaign strategists. The one in which my individual vote isn’t going to sway the election is true for voters-as-voters. But that last one, about the national election, is, I would argue, actually true for each of us as citizens.

If that’s true — and it is — then all of the rest of it isn’t really a problem, or even particularly important. Sure there might be — there are — small biases in the system, but there are going to be biases no matter how you structure the election. But at bottom, it’s still a national election.

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