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Why the two Nates still favor Clinton to win, despite tightening polls

Of course, you know, Hillary Clinton is favored by Nate Silver and Nate Cohn mostly, if not completely, because of the Electoral College factor.

Hillary Clinton speaking at a campaign rally in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on Tuesday
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

As I write this on Tuesday afternoon (I guarantee the situation will have changed by Wednesday morning as you read it) the presidential race has tightened considerably as measured by polls of the national electorate. The six fresh national popular vote polls aggregated by Real Clear Politics (which includes some polls in which the Green and Libertarian candidates were included and some not) show three in which Hillary Clinton has a lead of one point, one in which Clinton is tied with Donald Trump, one in which Trump is ahead by one percentage point and one in which Trump is up by three. If the question is who’s ahead right now in the national popular vote, based on the latest polls, you’d have to call it a tossup.

And yet, the two Nates who are the best known political number crunchers (Nate Silver of 538.com and Nate Cohn of the New York Times,) currently rate Clinton as 70.5 percent likely to win the presidency (Nate Silver) or 88 percent likely (Nate Cohn). Clinton’s “likelihood of winning” numbers have drifted down a bit but still seem pretty high considering the essential tie score in the national popular vote polls.

Of course, you know, Clinton is favored by the Nates mostly, if not completely, because of the Electoral College factor, a factor that makes it altogether possible for the person who gets the most popular votes to lose the election to the national popular vote loser, depending on where the votes are located.

Some of you, reading this and dreading the prospect of a President Trump, are thinking, “If so, hooray for the Electoral College system.” I sympathize, but I nonetheless feel I should point out, at least once every presidential election cycle, that the Electoral College violates the basic democratic notion that the person who gets the most actual votes should win an election.

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The Electoral College system also distorts the campaign (all the resources flow to the swing states; and candidates emphasize promises and arguments that will be persuasive to parochial interests in those states). As a result, the best state (Minnesota) and the three most populous states (California, Texas and New York, which among them have more than 27 percent of the nation’s population) are treated as flyover states for actual campaigning but major targets for fundraising, with the funds used to campaign in the swing states, including some very dinky ones, population-wise, like, this year, New Hampshire.

Minnesota, by the way, has a population more than quadruple that of New Hampshire, but, in electoral votes,  Minnesota only outvotes New Hampshire by 10 to 4, which is a lot less than quadruple. Why? Because in addition to the population-based allotment of electoral votes, each state also gets two bonus electoral votes, reflecting in some way the fact that each state has two senators. Is there any real fairness or logic to that rule, which is embedded in the Constitution? Not really, I would say. It reflects only that the framers were worried about getting the small states to ratify the Constitution.

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For those who are relatively new readers of my scribbling, over recent years MinnPost has afforded me time and space to publish two long series that bear on the argument that our election system is not among the best in the world (“Electoral Dysfunction,”) and that the roots of the problem, including the Electoral College, are found in our Constitution (“Imperfect Union.”) Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, you can read any or all of the pieces by following the links in the previous sentence, or just my full-fledged attack on the Electoral College system in several installments of the Imperfect Union series, typified by this one, titled “10 reasons why the Electoral College is a problem.”

But, as an added bonus, if you wonder why the Framers of the Constitution came up with such a strange system, which doesn’t resemble very much else in the democratic world, I offer you the key defense of the system, from the famed Federalist Papers. In that Federalist Paper, now known as number 68, future Broadway star Alexander Hamilton explains what’s so great about the system the authors of the Constitution came up with for choosing a president.

If you read it, I pretty much guarantee that you will be very surprised by his arguments, which seem to have roughly nothing to do with any of the ways in which the Electoral College system functions today. Or, if you don’t click through, here’s a sample passage that makes the same point. Wrote Hamilton:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.

 How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office.

 No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it.

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The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means. Nor would it be found easy suddenly to embark them, dispersed as they would be over thirteen States, in any combinations founded upon motives, which though they could not properly be denominated corrupt, might yet be of a nature to mislead them from their duty.