American Government Lecture Seven

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

The latest polling suggests 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 less than two weeks it may decide who the next president of the United States is.

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 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 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 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, and its location there has been preserved to this day (it's in 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 237 electoral votes, compared with 191 for Romney. How many electoral votes are left? The total of 538 minus 237 minus 191, which equals 110 electoral votes that could be divided in many different ways between the candidates. Those are the electoral votes for the "swing states" in this election (their Electoral College vote totals are in parentheses): Colorado (13), Iowa (6), Florida (29), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10). The presidential candidates, and their vice presidential running mates, are focusing their campaign efforts on those nine key States. New Jersey is not on the list (it will surely be won by Obama), so neither presidential campaign spends any time in New Jersey.

Simple arithmetic determines whether those nine States might be divided in a way that results in a perfect tie, 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 Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa.
  • Obama wins Colorado (13), Nevada (6), and Virginia (13); Romney wins Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.
  • Obama wins North Carolina (15), 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 confirms 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.

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 case his vote in presidential election before Election Day, by voting on October 25. All prior presidents voted on the official election day, which is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

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

Obama voted early for a reason: he wants to encourage other Democrats to vote early, and 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 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. Justifiable concerned by this trend, the Ohio legislature then passed a law to prohibit early voting during the weekend just prior to the election. 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 stopping early voting the weekend prior to the election in Ohio, 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, early voting in Ohio may be as much as 50% of its total vote this time.

Ten days before the election, it is 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 trip to Wisconsin on Monday, rather than Ohio, Nevada or Iowa.

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

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 term to move the ball down the field, by giving the ball to the running back and blocking for him.

What is the Media?

“The media” is a general term for sources of information. It includes television, newspapers, magazines, radio and, more recently, the internet.

When you want to learn what top officials in the federal government have done recently, then you turn to “the media” for the answer. You are not able to call President Bush and ask him what he is doing. You have to rely on others telling you what he is up to.

Why doesn’t President Bush just tell us directly? He could go on television every day and give us information directly, so that we can avoid distortions (“spin”) when others relay the information. Some politicians act in this manner. Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York, held news conferences every day to tell the public what he was doing.

However, there are drawbacks to Mayor Giuliani’s approach. First, it consumes a large percentage of time, when he could be doing more important things. If an official is talking to the press, then it’s time away from accomplishing something more meaningful. Terrorism is an example where we might prefer less talk and more action. An official who spent every day talking about terrorism would probably be hurting our economy and encouraging more attacks. It would be preferable for an official to prevent terrorism rather than talk about it.

Second, no one expects an official to tell the public all that he is really doing. Some activities would relate to secret operations against foreign enemies, and few would favor full public disclosure of that. Nor would we expect a politician to admit all his mistakes, and give his opponent ammunition to criticize him. So even if an official spent all day on television, we would still need to look to other sources of information to find the truth.

The media serves that need. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, newspapers brought all the details to a shocked public. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 22, 1963, television immediately broadcast the news to a distraught nation. JFK’s assassin was then himself murdered on live television.

Of all the channels of media, television has been the most powerful.

Television in the 1960s through 1980s

Radio had been very important during the Great Depression and World War II, but it faded in importance as television rose to popularity. By the late 1960s and through the 1980s, television enjoyed more power in influencing the public than all other media combined. Most Americans felt that if something was on TV, then it must be true.

With its enormous power, however, came gradual bias. Network television was not content simply to report to the public. It increasingly wanted to influence the public, and shape its views. It wanted to become more powerful than even the president.

By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia and college protests were prominent in America. The media began covering the war as no other war had been seen before. Gory and disturbing pictures of violence and death on the battlefield were piped into millions of American homes. Public opinion shifted because of it.

President Johnson lost his popularity and could not be reelected in 1968, and Richard Nixon won the White House. He knew the power of television, having used it to his advantage in addressing allegations against him in his Checkers speech in 1952. In 1960, Richard Nixon lost his presidential race to JFK largely because JFK looked better in the televised presidential debates.

By 1973, it was time for television to beat Richard Nixon again. Congress instituted hearings about the Watergate scandal, and daily televised coverage gradually turned the public against Richard 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.

But from the ashes rose a politician who was masterful at communicating his message over television: Ronald Reagan. A former 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 served him well. 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 his own home run. 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 likely have insisted on continuing to talk, Ronald Reagan politely thanked the moderator and abided by the rules. Here was a president who was not greedy for control, and played by the rules.

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 senator of Minnesota.

Some in television still hold a grudge against Ronald Reagan, however. In about a month, CBS will air a “docu-drama” designed to embarrass him with distortions and outright lies. Protests and perhaps a boycott of advertisers are expected from those who support him.


As important as television has been, newspapers remain enormously influential. They were a big cause for the Spanish-American War, and have played a key role in every war ever since. Television news producers look at newspapers to decide what stories to cover and run.

The major newspapers are overwhelming liberal. (Does this refer to news coverage or the political opinions of the editorial boards of the papers? GregG 10:04, 24 October 2012 (EDT)) The only conservative papers in the country are the New York Post, the New York Sun, the Washington Times, and small-town papers. (What about The Wall Street Journal [known for its very conservative editorial page] or the Chicago Tribune [the paper former Democratic Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich tried to extort in order to publish opinions more favorable to him]? GregG 21:39, 24 October 2012 (EDT))In New Jersey, every single major newspaper endorsed Democrat Jim McGreevey for governor. And he used those endorsements to his great advantage in his campaign ads.

However, the influence of newspapers has been declining. With each passing year, fewer people subscribe to newspapers. In old days, the family breakfast at home with the paper has been replaced with a less structured schedule. The availability of instantaneous, in-depth news over the Internet lessens the demand for newspapers. Why not obtain up-to-date news when you want it, rather than read stale news in the papers?

Prominent newspapers, like the New York Times, are also notorious in filtering news rather than reporting it. “All the News that’s Fit to Print” is the slogan of the New York Times, but in fact it carefully screens news from its subscribers. Its front page will feature stories that are days or weeks old, delayed or even rejected to created a political balance desired by the editors.

Stories about how guns have stopped crime and saved lives, for example, are unlikely ever to appear in major newspapers. Fallacies in theories of evolution or population control or other icons of humanism are screened from major newspapers.

Abortion is an issue subjected to tremendous bias in newspapers and most television programs.

Newspapers print letters to the editor, though some are careful not to print anything too conservative or embarrassing to the paper. The New York Times is notorious for screening any letters that discredit its own views. (Is this an unsupported accusation [which should be labeled as such] or is there evidence that such face-saving screening occurs? GregG 09:55, 25 October 2012 (EDT))

The Rise of Radio

Television reigned supreme for several decades, and by the 1980s had completely eclipsed radio in influence. Most news radio stations had been replaced by sports or rock music. Many were losing money. Some Christian radio stations could be found in the South.

A fellow by the name of Rush Limbaugh, originally from Missouri, had a popular talk show in Florida. He advocated conservative principles in an entertaining manner, frequently mocking his liberal opponents.

Slowly he garnered national attention, and moved his show to New York City. From there, he began to “syndicate” by making his daily talk show available to any station nationwide. In some cities, stations signed up immediately, while others (like Washington, D.C.) initially did not have any stations willing to carry Limbaugh’s conservative message.

But he caught on like wildfire, and by 1992 had an enormous audience. He was considered influential in causing the conservative political victories in 1994, and again in 2000 and 2002. By now, he has many conservative imitators competing against him in certain cities. Sean Hannity and others have similar shows now.

In the process, radio grew immensely in popularity. It is, once again, a major political force.

Ronald Reagan, though a master of television, was pleased by the reemergence of radio. Much of Reagan’s early work was on radio. In fact, he began his career as a baseball announcer over radio. As president, he instituted the weekly Saturday radio address that has been imitated by every president since.

It was, in fact, President Reagan who abolished the fairness doctrine. At the time, many conservatives thought the fairness doctrine was necessary to force the media to give both sides of an issue. But abolishing it allowed the rise of conservative talk radio.

It was before one of Reagan’s weekly radio addresses that he jokingly said he was bombing the communist Soviet Union: “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” His political opponents obtained a copy of the tape and criticized him harshly for the joke. However, he never backed down from his political humor.

The Internet

By the late 1990s, an entirely new media emerged: the internet. Matt Drudge was an early pioneer with his “” website. It now receives 4 million visits per day, all hungry for news information.

The internet may still be in its infancy in terms of influence. But its impact has already been immense. The impeachment of President Clinton was due entirely to the internet, as Matt Drudge published the incriminating information to the world after it had been withheld for political reasons by newspapers and television.

By the presidential election in 2000, millions of Americans were obtaining their news from the internet. Even television began taking its cue from the internet, following and repeating stories that first appeared there. When Bush and Gore held their televised presidential debates, polls indicated that almost no voters were influenced by them. Indeed, Gore apparently won the first and last debates, yet lost the election. The internet has taken hold of voters.

While conservatives greatly expanded their influence through the internet in the late 1990s, President Bush appears to be uninterested or even slightly opposed to it. He has not used it to disseminate information or raise money. Rather, President Bush has felt that controlling and withholding information is a better approach for him. Everything from Vice President Cheney’s task force on energy to memoranda connected with 9/11 have been withheld from the public, and litigation is occurring to force disclosures of that information.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important tool for the public to force disclosure of government documents, which can then be posted on the internet. The photographs of Vincent Foster, a top aide to President Clinton who surprisingly died in 1993, are being withheld from the government and are the subject of a case before the Supreme Court now. I filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, and media organizations later filed a brief on our side (in favor of disclosure). Oral arguments in the case will be on December 3, 2003, in Washington, D.C.

The candidate who is using the internet the most in running for president is former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He has amazingly leapt to the head of the pack of Democratic contenders, almost entirely on the strength of his internet-based campaign. He has raised far more campaign contributions than his Democratic competitors through the internet.

Political Parties

Our Founders opposed political parties, feeling that they interfered with the proper operation of government. Congressmen should vote their consciences, not take orders from political bosses. Just as gangs in schools are undesirable, gangs in politics (political parties) were considered detrimental also.

Alexander Hamilton had to start a political party in the first Administration of President George Washington, in order to obtain passage of their economic program in Congress. Party organization seemed to be necessary to bring order to the chaos of many congressmen, senators, and other officials. If everyone thought for himself, then how can anything be accomplished?

Today, political parties are an antidote to the media, a check and balance against the power of the media. The media wanted John McCain to be the Republican nominee for president in 2000. But the Republican Party favored George W. Bush. Guess who won? The political party won.

Only rarely does a candidate win election when he is not favored by his own political party. Arnold Schwarzenegger took advantage of the recall system in California to bypass any party nomination process and win the governorship of California in his first run. The former Republican Party chairman had never even met him. Schwarzenegger simply listed his name with over 100 others, and put “Republican” next to it. That’s not how the system usually works.

Instead, candidates can typically become serious contenders for high public office only after winning the endorsement of a major political party, Democratic or Republican. Only very rarely does a third-party candidate, such as former Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, win high office.


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

5. If Romney loses Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, which States must Romney win in order to win the election? (Make sure you understand this question, and doublecheck your answer, because this question is easy to answer incorrectly.)

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.

possible questions:

  1. What role is the internet playing in the 2008 election?
  2. Which part of the media is growing in strength?
  3. Is the overall influence of television on politics good or bad?
  4. Do you favor or oppose the power of political parties?

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.