American Government Lecture Seven

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American Government Lectures - [1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12]

There have been polls which suggest that Mitt Romney may win the most votes nationwide, but lose the election. How is that possible?

The reason is this: the winner of the presidential election is not the person who receives the most votes. Instead, the U.S. Constitution establishes an Electoral College to elect the president, which consists of representatives selected in each state.

In 2000, Al Gore won more votes by Americans than George W. Bush did, but Bush won more Electoral College votes and thus was elected president. Other years when a candidate lost the presidential election despite winning the most overall votes include 1960 and 1824.

So let's understand how the Electoral College works, because in about a week it may decide who the next president of the United States is, rather than the popular vote.

The Electoral College

Each State has a certain number of Electoral College votes, which equals the total of the State's congressmen (including their senators). Because every State has at least one representative in the House and two senators, the minimum number of Electoral College votes is 3. The least-populated states (Alaska, Montana and Wyoming), have only 3 Electoral College votes apiece. Heavily populated States have many more. Texas has 38 Electoral College votes, Florida has 29, Ohio has 18, and New Jersey has 14.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the members of the Electoral College meet on one day in December to elect the next president. A candidate can become the next president through this process only if he wins a majority of the Electoral College votes. If no one wins a majority, then the newly elected House of Representatives selects the next president in early January (after they take office), and the newly elected Senate chooses the next vice president. Thus it is possible that Mitt Romney will become president but Joe Biden will be his vice president, if Republicans have a majority in the next House of Representatives, Democrats have a majority in the next Senate, and neither Romney nor Obama win a majority of the Electoral College votes (which is different from the popular vote).

Is a tie possible?

Is it possible for there to be a tie in the Electoral College vote? Yes, it is.

First let's consider how many total Electoral College votes there are. We learned above that each State's number of Electoral College votes is the total of its congressional delegation: its number of representatives plus its number of senators in Congress. We know the total number in the House of Representatives (435) and the total number of Senators (100), so the total number of Electoral College votes from the States is 435 plus 100, which equals 535.

But what about Washington, D.C.? It is not a State, but about 600,000 people live and vote there, which is roughly the size of one congressional seat in population. Washington, D.C., is part of the United States, though it did not exist when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were originally ratified. In fact, as we learned in a prior lecture, Congress met in New York City during its first few years (near Foley Square in downtown Manhattan).

Congress began meeting in Washington, D.C., around 1800, and the population of that area was initially very small. But as the size of the federal government and the amount of money that it hands out has grown over the years, the size of the population in D.C. has grown too. Eventually the 23rd Amendment was added to the Constitution to give Washington, D.C. the same number of "Electors" in the Electoral College as the smallest State: a total of 3.

So the total number of Electoral College votes is 435 plus 100 plus 3, which equals 538. A tie is possible: 269 for one candidate, and 269 for the other. The minimum needed for a candidate to win a majority is one more: 270 votes in the Electoral College. If no candidate wins that many (as occurred in 1824), then the House of Representatives picks the next president.

Is a tie possible between Romney and Obama this year?

Now that we know that a tie is possible, the next question is whether a tie is possible between Romney and Obama in the presidential election that occurs in about a week. Again, the answer is yes. But in order to understand that, we must first learn how States assign Electoral College votes to the candidates.

Nearly every State uses a winner-take-all system, such that the candidate who wins the popular vote in that State then receives all of its Electoral College votes. It does not matter if the candidate wins by 51-49% or 75-25%, the winner receives the same number of Electoral College votes for that State: all of them.[1]

Now that we know how the Electoral College votes are assigned, we can start to estimate what the likely outcomes are. Notice that the nationwide polls of which candidate has more overall support are almost irrelevant in a close election. What matters is who has more Electoral College support, and to calculate that number it requires looking at state-by-state polls.

Based on polling in States where one candidate has a substantial lead over the other, Obama will almost certainly win at least 237 electoral votes, compared with 235 for Romney. How many electoral votes are left? The total of 538 minus 237 minus 235, which equals 66 electoral votes that could be divided in many different ways between the candidates. These are the electoral votes for the seven "swing states" in this election (their Electoral College vote totals are in parentheses): Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10). The presidential candidates, and their vice presidential running mates, are focusing their campaign efforts on these seven key States. New Jersey is not on the list (as a State controlled by Democrats, New Jersey will surely be won by Obama), so neither presidential campaign spends any time in New Jersey.

Simple arithmetic determines whether these seven States might be divided in a way that results in an overall tie in the Electoral College, 269 to 269, between Romney and Obama. Mathematically, if Obama wins only the swing states that total 32 electoral votes, then his total becomes 237 plus 32, which equals 269, for a tie with Romney. There are at least three plausible ways that this could be the outcome, with a perfect tie as the result:[2]

  • Obama wins Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4) and Wisconsin (10); Romney wins Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa.
  • Obama wins Colorado (9), Wisconsin (10), and Virginia (13); Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Nevada.
  • Obama wins Colorado (9), Iowa or Nevada (6), Virginia (13) and New Hampshire (4); Romney wins the others.

Ohio is considered by many observers to be a "must win" State for Romney, without which it is nearly impossible for him to win the presidency. In the above scenarios, in only one of them can Romney tie Obama if Obama wins Ohio. The other scenarios depend on Romney winning Ohio.

In 2004, the margin of victory for George W. Bush in the Electoral College was only one State: Ohio. And George W. Bush won by less than 100,000 votes there, even though he won the national popular vote by a much bigger margin.

History suggests that the outcome in Ohio between Romney and Obama will decide the overall winner: in every presidential election since 1960, the winner of Ohio has won the Electoral College and the election. Ohio is the only State to side with the winner in 12 out of the 12 last presidential elections. Indeed, a Republican candidate for the president has never won the election without winning Ohio.

Some experts expect Obama to win the presidential election because he remains ahead of Romney in most polls in Ohio.

Impact of Early Voting

President Obama became the first president to cast his vote in presidential election before Election Day, by voting last week. All prior presidents have voted on the official Election Day, which is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

A prior lecture mentioned how nearly half our Nation may vote early this year, prior to Election Day, and some States allow far more early voting than in other States.

Obama voted early for a special reason: he wants to encourage other Democrats to vote early, and thereby increase the Democrat "turnout" that way. "Turnout" is the percentage of people who vote, among those who have the right to vote. Turnout is often far less than 100%, as many people registered to vote do not bother to actually vote on Election Day. By encouraging early voting, Obama was sending a strong signal to Democrat leaders in the swing states: encourage as many other Democrats as possible to vote early, to make sure that Election Day does not pass without their voting.

Early voting can result in the intimidation of people into voting, who might not otherwise vote. In the U.S. Senate race in Nevada in 2010, buses took casino workers to polling booths during the early voting period, and those workers may have felt that they must vote, and must vote Democratic. Early voting by mail, meanwhile, is vulnerable to party workers or union bosses improperly filling out ballots for other people, and then mailing them in to be counted.

In the mid-term elections in 2010, 25% of the voters in Ohio voted early -- days or weeks prior to election day, either by mail or by showing up at special polling booths. Justifiably concerned by this trend, the Ohio legislature then passed a law to prohibit early voting during the weekend just prior to the election. (There was an exception allowing military and overseas voters to cast their ballots in-person during this time.) But Democrats, realizing how they can use early voting to their advantage by rounding up people and taking them to the polling booths over a period of many days, including the weekend before the election, sued in federal court to have the law invalidated. The lawsuit succeeded: the federal court invalidated the Ohio law, and the decision was affirmed on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court then declined the petition for it to review the issue. As a result, expansive early voting in Ohio, during which as many as 50% of Ohio's voters will cast ballots this election, is still in effect.[3]

It is already possible to see which side is ahead in the early voting in the swing states, by looking at who has cast ballots. It is not possible to see the ballots themselves, because they will not be opened and counted until Election Day. But it is reported how many registered voters cast ballots, and which political party those registered voters are in.

Obama leads in the early voting in Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, suggest that Romney will not win those States. But Romney is doing well in the other swing states.

Perhaps because of these early voting results, Romney has scheduled a campaign trip to Wisconsin -- which does not have much early voting. Romney may have a better chance of winning States that do not have expansive early voting.

Homework question: can Romney win if he loses Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, as early voting returns suggest?

Democracy, or a Republic?

Perhaps the most fundamental question that can be asked about the American system of government is this: is it a democracy? The answer is no. The United States is a republic: government by representatives who are elected by the people, such that the people do not govern directly. These elected representatives have a sworn duty to abide by the U.S. Constitution, and they are expected to be better informed, more responsible, and less affected by whim or fads than the average voter. Because the Constitution is what really governs the United States, the most precise term for our system of government is a "constitutional republic."

If the United States were a democracy, then we would elect the next president by a popular vote nationwide. In 2000, that would have meant the election of Al Gore rather than George W. Bush, because Al Gore won more votes nationwide than Bush did. The Electoral College system that we continue to have for electing the president would not exist in a democracy.

The Founders of our system of government, including the Framers of the Constitution, were generally oppose to a democracy. Alexander Hamilton, for example, preferred government by something more like a monarchy than a democracy. There was tremendous concern about how a democracy can be influenced in a bad way by the fickle whims of the people. The long six-year term for U.S. Senators is another example of how the Framers did not want democratic control of government. Indeed, the U.S. Senate was chosen by the State legislatures, not by public vote, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

At the founding of our Nation, not every adult even had the right to vote to select their congressmen and State legislatures. In many States, only adults who owned property had the right to vote. That condition was to ensure that only the productive members of society could choose the leaders. If that condition still existed, then people who take from the government rather than give to it would not be as powerful in elections as they are today.

Subject to limitations in the U.S. Constitution and federal law, State law generally determines who has a right to vote, what the registration process is, and whether a photo ID must be shown in order to vote. The 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 shortly after the Civil War, prohibits any limitations on the right to vote based on race. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which Congress enacted pursuant to the 15th Amendment) and the 24th Amendment (barring poll taxes) prohibit any additional tests based on literacy or property ownership. The Supreme Court has recently granted certiorari in Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., to decide whether an Arizona law requiring citizens registering to vote to provide documents proving their citizenship is preempted by a federal law, the National Voter Registration Act.

The 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920 shortly after World War I, prohibits any limitations on the right to vote based on gender. Women had the right to vote in many, but not all, States at the time this was passed. The "women's suffragette" movement successfully sought to guarantee the right of women to vote everywhere in the United States. Its leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony, were advocates of this women's right to vote, but were opposed to any women's "right" to an abortion. The "suffragettes" were very pro-life.

The impact of the 19th Amendment was seen in the presidential debates and acceptance speeches at the nominating conventions this year. More women vote today than men do, and both Romney and Obama have repeatedly attempted to win votes from women by tailoring their styles and political positions to appeal to women. Women tend to be against war, and both candidates at the final debate on foreign policy went out of their way to say how they do not plan to start another war. If either candidate had been as pro-war as, for example, the Fox News Channel is, then that candidate would have lost many women votes and probably the election because of it.

A Direct Democracy?

A "direct democracy" is when the people vote directly on laws, as they do when they pass referenda in various states. There is no procedure in the U.S. Constitution for the people to enact a national (federal) law, so there are no national referenda. Sometimes the media, however, will speak in terms of the election of a president as a national referendum on an important issue. If Romney wins, the media may describe the election as a "referendum on the economy," which is doing poorly.

But at the State level, there are many referenda, particularly in western states where democracy is preferred more than it is in the Northeast. California is known for having many famous referenda over the years, which they call "Propositions". Proposition 13 greatly reduced property taxes in California by popular vote there in 1978, and to this day California has one of the lowest property taxes in our Nation. As a result, its property values have gone up without a tax burden being imposed on the higher property values. Many Californians have made a fortune simply from the increase in the value of their homes.

More recently, in 2008, California banned same-sex marriage in a referendum to the shock of liberals who expected to win on that issue there. Exit polls (polls taken as people exit the polling booth) showed that many African Americans who voted for Obama in that election also voted for traditional marriage and against same-sex marriage.

Attempts to pass pro-life laws by referenda or propositions (also called "initiatives") almost always fail, however, often by big margins of loss. One reason is that the billion-dollar abortion industry pours millions of dollars into advertisements against pro-life initiatives on the ballot, and many voters are influenced by ads they see on television. In addition, democracy is not always the best way to decide an issue. A crowd of people can just as easily decide to do something wrong as to do something right. The public turned against even Jesus at the end, when He was crucified.

There is ongoing debate about where candidates to represent the Republican Party should be chosen by democratic vote, or by a "caucus" that limits participation to party members who make some kind of special effort to participate (and be informed). In some States, such as Virginia and Utah, caucuses are usually held to nominate the candidates to represent the Republican Party in the general election. In the presidential nomination process, Rick Santorum did better in the States that used a caucus system, while Mitt Romney (due to his money advantage in being able to run far more political ads than Santorum could) did better when there was a primary that allowed voting by all registered Republicans and even non-Republicans. Historically, John Adams from Puritan New England preferred a caucus system, while Thomas Jefferson from more egalitarian Virginia preferred a more democratic system.

There is also a distinction between "open" and "closed" primaries. An "open primary" allows independents and even members of another political party to vote in selecting the nominee of, for example, the Republican Party. A "closed primary" limits voting to registered members of the party itself. So in a Republican Party primary to choose its nominee for president or Congress, an "open primary" would allow anyone to vote in that primary election, while a "closed primary" would limit voting those who are already registered in the Republican Party. Which system do you think is better?

More Political Terminology

We have already seen a variety of colorful political terms, such as "lame duck." Here are some more terms for our political dictionary:

  • the "ground game": this is part of politics which consists of "getting out the vote" by calling and driving people on your side to polling booths so they can vote, or giving them mail-in ballots to the extent that early voting by mail is allowed in your State before election day. The Democrats have a better "ground game" in the key State of Ohio than Republicans do. The term is derived from football, where the "ground game" is the nitty-gritty way for a team to move the ball down the field, by giving the ball to the running back and blocking for him.
  • the "coattails": this refers to how the popularity of a presidential candidate in an election will tend to pull up other candidates in his political party on the same ballot, because many voters do not engage in "split-ticket voting," whereby they vote for a Democrat for president but a Republican for Congress. Mitt Romney's "coattails" will help pro-life U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin in Missouri, because Romney leads Obama by nearly 10 points in that State.
  • "to walk something back": this means for someone to back down and retract or apologize for a statement he made. For example, recently Romney campaign advisor John Sununu said that the endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell, who is also black, was because both are black. Predictably, the media and many Democrats criticized Sununu for his remark, and he then "walked it back" - i.e., revised his statement to say Powell's endorsement had nothing to do with race.[4]
  • to "pivot": like other political terms, this one comes from sports. Not football this time, but basketball, where a player changes direction with a "pivot". In politics it refers to how a candidate will change direction in an answer to a question to a topic more favorable to him, as when Mitt Romney "pivoted" in the second debate to talk about Obama's "Fast and Furious" scandal in response to a question about gun control.
  • the "narrative": this refers to the basic story line that a politician wants to make as favorable as possible to his image or candidacy. Elections are won or lost based on a candidate's ability to get his own "narrative" in the media, rather than allowing his opponent to present a different, less favorable narrative about him.
  • "political capital": this term is taken from the financial world, where "capital" refers to how much someone has to spend and invest. "Political capital" refers to how much support a politician has obtained, through an election or perhaps a momentous event like winning a war, which the politician can then "spend" by pushing bills through Congress. An example is how Obama spent his political capital obtained in the 2008 election by enacting ObamaCare.
  • "civil rights": this term usually applies to rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, particularly rights against racial and other kinds of discrimination.

Newspaper endorsements

A week or two before election, most major newspapers endorse (express their support for) certain candidates. This past Sunday, many major newspapers ran editorials indicating whether they supported Mitt Romney or Barack Obama for president. Other newspapers endorsed one of those two candidates a week earlier, as the Denver Post did, to try to influence early voters in addition to those who vote on Election Day. (80% of the votes in Colorado are expected to be by early voting this year.)

What is the significance of the newspaper endorsements? Quite a bit, in some cases. Although the percentage of voters who read newspapers has sharply declined over the past decade, there still are many older people who read and trust newspapers. And older people vote in much higher percentages than younger people do, so a newspaper endorsement can influence the outcome in a close election. Also, the endorsements can be used in political ads, to create an appearance that a neutral, knowledgeable observer supports the candidate.

Surprise endorsements can be particularly helpful, as occurred this past Sunday when the Des Moines Register, a major newspaper in the key swing state of Iowa, endorsed Mitt Romney for president. This was the first time that newspaper had endorsed a Republican for president in 40 years. Indeed, all four leading newspapers in Iowa endorsed Romney, despite how newspapers tend to prefer Democrats instead. If the Romney campaign uses these surprise newspaper endorsements in new political ads in Iowa, then that could affect thousands of voters there, and shift enough voters to Romney's side to win that key State and its 6 electoral votes.

Letters to the Editor

Though newspapers are the most liberal part of the media, they often welcome letters to the editor. Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper is as easy as sending an email. The newspaper's website will have a link for "letters to the editor," or "reader feedback," or something similar, which provides an email address for sending a "letter to the editor."

A good letter to the editor is brief, having less than 100 words. Its first sentence should include the title of the article it is responding to, and it should have include name of the author of the letter (newspapers do not accept anonymous letters). A witty turn of a phrase, or clever argument, makes it more likely it will be published. It must also be timely - the sooner a letter is sent in response to an article in the newspaper, the better.

All Americans should send letters to the editor to their local newspapers, and national newspapers, so that the public can see their opinions. Otherwise people hear only the opinions of those who run the media. Have you ever written a letter to the editor? Will you?

Television in the 1960s through 1980s

In some ways newspapers are more influential than television, and one reason is that television tends to pick its stories and their "spin" (biased approach) based on what newspapers have already printed. Newspapers tend to lead, while television tends to follow.

Newspapers turned against American involvement in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and then television began showing the American public gory images never seen before by most Americans. Public opinion shifted against the Vietnam War because of it, and eventually our troops were pulled out of the conflict.

By 1973, television had grown so powerful that it could -- and did -- force an American president (Richard Nixon) to resign. Congress had begun hearings about the Watergate scandal, and daily televised coverage of the hearings gradually turned the public against President Nixon. Hours and hours of televised coverage featuring critics of President Nixon eventually forced him to resign. Television proved that it had the power to cause the first presidential resignation in history, a power it has never exercised against a Democratic President.

But from the ashes rose a politician who was masterful at communicating his message over television: Ronald Reagan. A former Hollywood actor, he perfected the art of using short statements (“sound bites”) that could be easily understood in a televised broadcast. He also looked youthful and sincere on television, and his years of experience before cameras made him a master of that media. He rode television to the White House 1980 and a landslide reelection in 1984.

While Richard Nixon had been beaten by television in the presidential debates in 1960, Ronald Reagan delivered an unforgettable performance in the final televised presidential debate against his 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale. Ronald Reagan turned every tough question, like a difficult baseball pitch, into a home run for him and his supporters. Asked how he could expect to serve as president at such an old age, Ronald Reagan simply joked that he would not use his opponent’s youthful inexperience against him. Told that he more time to add to his answer, Ronald Reagan said he had nothing further to add to his quip.

Even when Ronald Reagan misjudged his time in his closing remarks, causing the moderator to interrupt him and tell him to stop, Ronald Reagan even used his gaffe in his favor. When another president would have likely insisted on continuing to talk, Ronald Reagan politely thanked the moderator and complied with the rules. Here was a president who was not greedy for control, and who played by the rules.

Democrat Walter Mondale, like Richard Nixon in 1960, blamed television itself for his loss. Walter Mondale said he never liked the television camera, and never related well to it. In 2002, Walter Mondale was beaten again as he attempted a comeback to become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota.

One More Data Point Before the Election

There is one more important "data point" (piece of information) before Election Day this year: on Friday morning the Department of Labor will announce the latest unemployment rate, which is considered the single most influential number in a presidential election. No incumbent president has been reelected with the unemployment rate above 7.2% since World War II; no incumbent president has lost reelection with the unemployment rate at or below 7.2% during that time. For nearly 70 years this single number has been a perfect predictor of whether an incumbent president wins reelection.

Last month the unemployment rate, as announced by the Department of Labor, was at 7.8%. It seems unlikely that will decrease as far as 7.2% in one month. But if it falls to 7.5% or so, then that might be enough of an improvement to allow the incumbent Barack Obama to win a narrow reelection, perhaps while losing the popular vote.


Answer the first five questions, and then two of the remaining three, for a total of seven questions:

1. Is the United States a democracy? Explain briefly.
2. What is your prediction for the final Electoral College vote for the presidential election this year? Include actual numbers (e.g., 272 for Obama to 266 for Romney) and a brief discussion.
3. Explain what "early voting" is, and include your view of it.
4. Rank these systems in order of how democratic they are: closed primary, caucus, open primary, and a referendum.
5. If Romney loses Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, which State(s) must Romney win in order to win the election (assuming that Obama will almost certainly win at least 237 electoral votes" as discussed in the lecture)? (Make sure you understand this question, and doublecheck your answer, because this question is easy to answer incorrectly.)
6. Write and send a letter to the editor of a newspaper, and include your letter in your homework. (One year a student, in response to a similar question, had his letter accepted for publication in the New York Times.) This is worth two questions.
7. Pick your favorite political term that is defined in this lecture, and explain the significance of it.
8. What is your view of referenda (also called propositions or initiatives)? Discuss.

Extra credit (answer two of the following five questions):

9. Is there any plausible way that Romney can win the presidential election without winning Ohio? Explain.
10. Do you think there should be limits on who can vote?
11. What is your view of whether the Electoral College system for electing the president should be replaced with the national popular vote.
12. What is your view of requiring a photo ID as a condition of allowing someone to vote?
13. Write about any topic in the lecture.

You can post your answers at American Government Homework Seven.


  1. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions. Both states award two Electoral College votes to the candidate with the most votes statewide and one Electoral College vote to the winning candidate in each Congressional district.
  3. For details about the legislative history that led to the changes in early voting law in Ohio that were struck down, see