Jonathan Bernstein: Is Elizabeth Warren right about the Electoral College?

At a CNN town hall in Mississippi on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for an end to the Electoral College. She claimed that while small states like Mississippi are largely ignored under the current rules, a popular-vote system would ensure that all voters count.

Is she right?

In one sense, small states actually benefit from the college: It’s one part population, one part credit for just being a state. So each person in Wyoming and Mississippi is represented by a slightly larger percentage of Electoral College votes than their state’s population alone would suggest. Of course, that’s not really how the politics play out (no one campaigns in solidly Republican Wyoming and Mississippi, for instance, or solidly Democratic Vermont and Rhode Island).

Instead, what matters in the Electoral College is partisan competitiveness. I’ve argued that the big, close states have an advantage, because it’s more efficient to win electoral votes in big chunks; Andrew Gelman, who unlike me has published papers on this topic, says that it’s the small, close states that do best.

I’m skeptical of that argument. To me, the key question isn’t individual voter clout, but the consequences of strategic candidate behavior. Certainly the states where candidates have tended to campaign over the past two decades — notably Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are both large and close. But I’m not aware of any study that looks at the attention-per-voter that candidates give to (say) Florida compared with Iowa.

What’s really hurt the case for the Electoral College is that fewer states have been close in recent elections. In particular, big states and their major cities have tended to become less competitive.

In 1952, the seven states with 20 or more electoral votes were all within 5 percentage points of Dwight Eisenhower’s national margin, and the eight largest cities were all in those states. In 2008, only three of the seven largest states were that close, and only one of the top eight cities.

In 2016, it was down to two of the seven largest states, and Philadelphia was the only top 10 city. In fact, only six of the top 40 cities were in swing states in 2016. That’s especially a problem because everyone agrees that the Senate rewards smaller, more rural states. Once upon a time, the big-city bias in the Electoral College could help balance that out; not these days.

There doesn’t seem to be any systematic reason for this trend, and perhaps it could reverse itself. States just outside the margin I’m using here include several big cities. If Texas really is becoming a competitive state in presidential elections, that alone would make the Electoral College a lot more sensitive to cities.

But the wild card is that we don’t know how candidates would behave if only the total vote mattered. There’s a lot of loose talk about how they’d only campaign in big cities — unlikely, because they don’t do that in statewide races now — or that they’d campaign everywhere. My best guess is that candidates would be even more likely to focus on turnout (as opposed to persuasion) than they already are.

Either way, it’s important to remember that despite two recent elections in which Democrats won the most votes while Republicans won the presidency, there really hasn’t been a consistent Electoral College advantage for either party.

Republicans did have a large edge in 2016 — but it’s not at all clear which party will benefit in 2020.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.