As regular readers of this space have sensed, your humble and obedient and ink-stained wretch is fairly obsessed with the vagaries of the U.S. system of politics and elections. Also governance, but that’s for another day.
And by “vagaries” I mean features that don’t work well and don’t make sense. I don’t delude myself that there is a perfect system, but I do believe that our system is ridiculously hard to change, that each of these bugs is beneficial to some faction that will be able to defend it, and that many Americans are so brainwashed about the alleged excellence of our system that they are disinclined to think seriously about how it could be improved.
That little diatribe summarizes a great deal of my previous expostulations, so let me get to the one about which I am fulminating the moment, namely the Ohio and Florida one.
Political scientist and Brookings scholar William Galston published in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal a little analysis of the Republican presidential field titled “The Five Plausible GOP Candidates.” For reasons with which he is satisfied, Galston has discerned that 12 of the 17 declared candidates are implausible and the nominee will be chosen from among this five: Govs. John Kasich or Scott Walker, former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. He seems fairly focused on Kasich and Bush.
He explains this in his piece (although you may have to be a WSJ subscriber to get past the paywall). I’m not so sure he’s right, but he’s smarter than me, and that’s not what set me off. In his last paragraph (and it’s also alluded to in the subheadline on the piece) he writes:
“From a Democratic standpoint, a moderate-conservative Republican ticket representing the two largest swing states would be cause for concern. In fact, Bush-Kasich would be scary. Kasich-Rubio even moreso.”
Kasich is the governor of Ohio. Bush and Rubio are both Floridians. An Ohio-Florida (or Florida-Ohio) ticket would give the Republican ticket home-field advantage in the only two states that matter.
Only two states that matter? Think that’s an exaggeration?
Some election history
Maybe a little, but consider: The last ticket to the win a presidential election without carrying either Ohio or Florida was the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960, and they may have stolen that election and it’s ancient history anyway.
Since then there have been 13 presidential elections. In 11 of those, the winning ticket carried both Ohio and Florida. In two other elections (1992 and 2000, both of which were utterly weird and wild), the major party tickets divided the two big swing states (if, that is, you believe that George W. Bush carried Florida in 2000). So, really, in a meaningful sense, 1992 (when Bill Clinton carried Ohio and George H.W. Bush carried Florida) was the only election in which any states mattered very much other than Ohio and Florida.
Yes, there are a few other swing states, but Ohio and Florida are the big electoral prizes. Pundit Larry Sabato has already identified the six states that will be in-play. In descending order of electoral votes they are Florida (29), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6). Yeah, sure, Virginia isn’t that much smaller than Ohio, so maybe three states will, maybe all six. The point is the same. Most states won’t and, for campaign purposes, will be treated as if they don’t.
Is this a feature or a bug? I say it’s a “bug” embedded in the Electoral College system, aided by the winner-take-all rule, and by changes over the years in Ohio and Florida.
In the years after the Civil War, Ohio was a solid Republican stronghold and Florida was part of the “Solid South” that always gave its electoral votes to the Democratic ticket. But for more than three decades now, those two states have been the biggest of the perpetual swing states. Therefore, in any close election, any ticket that carried them both would win.
You know this. You hear it every four years. But how often do you rebel against the idea that voters in those states matter so much more than in the other 48 (or 44)?
Not what the Framers intended
For the record, the way the Electoral College system functions has almost nothing to do with anything that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. And the winner-take-all rule is nothing they intended and is a complete triumph of partisan advantage-seeking. I personally would be happy to do away with the Electoral College, but that will require a constitutional amendment. It would be a huge step in the right direction if the winner-take-all rule was abolished so that each state’s electoral votes were awarded to the tickets according to the proportion of the state’s votes a ticket received.
OK, none of that will happen anytime soon. But if you look at the late stages of a presidential campaign when the campaigns completely ignore 40-some of the states and focus entirely on the swingiest of the swing states, just ask yourself if this in any way advances the democratic quality of the election or the legitimacy of the mandate that the winner receives.
Why should we be OK with an election for the highest office in the land in which only a few states seem to matter?
And then, of course, although I don’t see it happening much in recent history, in the spirit of Prof. Galston’s analysis, we could have parties deciding to stack their tickets with candidates that have special appeal to Florida and Ohio.
How is this a good thing?