Presidential Polls, Electoral College and Swing States

Polls lead you to believe that the President is elected by popular vote. In fact it is a two-part process and the popular vote may not prevail.

Almost every day now we get the results of polling on the support levels for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Democratic Presidential incumbent, Barack Obama. All seem to indicate a close race but they are deceiving in at least one big way. 

Polls are based on individual voters being asked about their preferences.  In the case of the Presidential election, the polls generally ask which candidate an individual voter prefers.  The polling organizations usually break out the people who are queried by other categories such as gender, religion, party affiliation, race, issues, and any number of other groupings.  The results give the impression
that one candidate is ahead of the other. What’s wrong with this?

Electing a President is not like electing any other office holder.  In the latter case, if Candidate A gets more votes than Candidate B, then Candidate A wins.  Not so with Presidential voting.  Presidents (and Vice Presidents) are elected by getting a majority of votes in the Electoral College which is composed of representatives of states.   The number of votes each state gets in the Electoral College is based on the number of its congressional representatives, which is directly related to population, plus two for their two Senators.  Populated states will have more electoral votes that less populated states.  The total number of electors is 538.

It is a majority of these Electors who decide which candidate will be the President, not the total popular vote as calculated across all voting states, districts and territories.  A poll that tells you that one candidate is ahead of another by 51 to 49 leaves the impression that if the vote were taken that day, the candidate with 51% would win. Not necessarily so.  The popular vote result in a given state determines how that state’s Electoral votes will be cast.  If Candidate A wins the popular vote in a state, all of that state’s Electoral votes will be cast for him.   So if the candidate with the 51% polling number has his support mainly in low population states, in an actual election his total votes in the Electoral College can still end up short of the candidate with the 49% polling number if that candidate’s support is from a high-population state.  Winning the popular vote in Alaska, Delaware, Idaho and Maine, for instance, would yield 14 Electoral votes while winning the popular vote in California would yield 55 Electoral Votes.  This is why candidates concentrate on so-called “swing states” – those whose popular vote can change the final number of Electoral votes a candidate receives.

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