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

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

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.

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.

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/02/2016 - 11:13 am.

    Two-way Race Polls

    Well, there were FOUR candidates with known following on the ballot I marked Monday.
    Any numbers based on a “two-way” race are simply not quite relevant.
    If Johnson is getting 4% and Stein 1%, that’s 5% of somebody. Simple averaging of 6 polls is mostly irrelevant, as well. Throw all this into the overall 3-4% “margin of error,” and we better understand what the pollsters retrospectively call “upsets.” My statistics professor would laugh (probably did) at such casual blending of levels of confidence. The final stats will be most interesting this year.

    [I’m simply now wondering just how much popcorn I can eat next Tuesday night.]

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2016 - 11:57 am.

    Never cared for popcorn

    …and I think Mr. Hamilton is overthinking the issue of corruption (not to mention beating the English language into something approaching submission), but the question of why the system was designed this way seems to this amateur to be amply illustrated by the 2016 campaign. Without quoting a lot from The Federalist Papers, I’d nonetheless suggest that what the Founders were trying to avoid is the Republican scenario of the present day. That is, they set up a system to purposely minimize the influence of “the mob,” while still maintaining much of the appearance (though perhaps less of the substance) of democracy as it’s been mythologized. Donald Trump pretty much personifies the sort of candidate, and his followers pretty much personify the mob that likely woke Hamilton – singing or not – in a cold sweat at 3 AM. We have representative government, to the degree that it IS representative, because the framers of our founding documents were mostly what a late friend in Colorado used to refer to as “people of money,” and those people have little more trust in the judgment of our relatively unsophisticated populace than Trump supporters have in Hillary Clinton, and Clinton supporters have in Donald Trump. We have a “republican” (Note the lower-case “R”) government, rather than a genuinely democratic one, on purpose.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/02/2016 - 01:43 pm.

      Well said…

      I love popcorn, Ray. May I suggest peanuts for you, then, perhaps to starve a few red Elephants?
      I also believe we should consider the New Mob, which appears to not be “strictly legitimate,” as proclaimed.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/02/2016 - 12:28 pm.

    March 14, 1788

    As I recall, the framers of the Constitution deplored factions and thought political parties would wreck the whole beautiful edifice of their work. Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68, written March 14,1788 seems to be from the brief interlude before the Constitution was adopted when such idealistic thinking still prevailed. Hamilton’s arguments seem to reflect a rosy view that some system or structure like an Electoral College could be devised to inoculate the country against corruption and partisan politics. His confidence seems to have harbored a blind spot in his thinking. It was he, Hamilton,whose Federalist outlook of a strong central government, gave birth to the Federalist Party and in turn its opposition, the anti-Federalist. We can probably thank Hamilton for creating by indirection the two party system which we enjoy so much today.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/02/2016 - 01:30 pm.

    The national popular vote poll, while interesting….

    ….don’t offer the best snapshot of who is like to be our next president. In the electoral college map, state-specific polls are best. RCP does a nice job of showing polls in the so-called battleground states that will like determine the winner. They are also small “c” conservative in labeling a state red or blue, unlike sites like fivethirtyeight.

  5. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/02/2016 - 03:53 pm.

    Yes, the EC is flawed …

    … but could you imagine the terrible situation that would occur if the national popular vote was so close that it required a recount of every single vote cast in every single state, and in every single ward, and in every single precinct across the country?

    If we went to a popular vote, and that scenario developed, the situation would be disastrous. And with the national elections being very close to 50-50, this is not an unfounded fear.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/03/2016 - 05:52 am.

      Not Likely

      While the nation may have a 50-50 split, that is not a basis for your fears. In 1968, Humphrey & Nixon were separated by .7% of the popular vote. Sounds razor thin, right? If Obama & Romney were separated by .7% in 2012, that would have translated into a difference of 882,000. Not exactly Al Franking winning by 300 or so votes.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/03/2016 - 10:51 am.

        Silly thought here…

        Chuckling over the yard signs that would promote a very edgy ticket of “Franken/Stein.”

        Still haven’t seen any “Trumppence” placards, as I suggested months and months ago..

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/04/2016 - 07:54 am.

        Elector summary judgment

        If I recall my civics lessons, when the popular vote is somehow inconclusive or in fair question and clarity cannot be determined, the state’s electors meet to settle the decision for, say, Minnesota. If memory serves well, that is one aspect of the Electoral College generally forgotten. The Electoral College, in such rare instance, is arbiter of potentioal chaos. That role, to me, is full justification for retaining this system.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/02/2016 - 09:36 pm.

    Maybe the Nates read the papers

    Clinton has been declared the winner for weeks and we don’t even need to go out and vote next week. Battleground states, all of America, all of the polls referenced by our local media have it in the bag for Clinton.

    When Clinton wins in an electoral landslide with less than 55% of the popular vote, do you think that she will be working for ALL Americans? How well will she work “across the aisle” if the House stays in Republican hands? Can’t wait to find out if she’s been telling the truth for the last two years…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2016 - 04:12 pm.

      By your logic

      If she gets 90% of the vote will she be working for ALL (100%) Americans?

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/05/2016 - 06:34 pm.

        Who knows?

        She might truly be working for 25% of the public. The rap on Romney was that he would work only for his Fortune 500 friends. Perhaps HRC will focus efforts on Clinton, Inc. shareholders.
        It’s speculation not always clarified by future actions.
        I guess we must look to the targets of Executive Orders and Oval Office generated legislation.

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