Section 4: A Few Keys to Understanding the State of Play (including state by state voting, the Electoral College, and separating media from math)

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

25 October 2016

During the general election – which we’re in right now – one of the most challenging things can be parsing the news – especially given how many different ways to receive the news there are now. Who’s up? Who’s down? What do the polls mean? Is this news source truly unbiased or not? Especially given the significance of the United States Presidential election to the world, I believe that it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind during the election season:

First, it’s a state-by-state, not a national, election — Battleground States:

Most states consistently vote for one party over the years. For example, just focusing on the recent past, New York has gone to the Democratic candidates in every presidential election since 1988 and Texas has voted for the Republican candidate in every race in the same period.  Other states – called battleground or swing states — are less predictable, and those are where the campaigns tend to focus their efforts and resources.  Since 2000, there are only 10 states that have switched between the two main parties. Those are the ones to watch carefully during the course of the campaign and on election night when the results start coming in.

Second, The Electoral College :

In the end who wins the presidential election is determined by the number of votes the candidate gets in the Electoral College, a system designed by our founding fathers to ensure that everyone – those from large urban areas and those from less populated rural areas — is represented in the election. Codified in the United States Constitution, this representative form of democracy distributes electors to each state according to the formula — the number of electors per state = the number of elected officials representing the state in Congress, that is, the number of Representatives plus the number of Senators. So, for example, New York has 27 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators, so has a total of 29 Electors, and Wyoming has one member of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators, making a total of 3 Electors.  All electors in a state must vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote. Thus,each state is, in many ways, its own contest – especially since how people are registered to vote, the designs of the ballot, and the tallying are all done on a state-by-state basis. More populous states will have more electors, but even states with a small number of electors can have an impact – especially in a nation as evenly divided as the United States.

Third, separating the media from the math:

In 2008 and 2012, much of the election was happening at a grassroots level – and was quite different from what the media was covering. While we don’t know how this general election will turn out, it’s useful to keep this in mind and recognize that, what may be coming through the media, may only be tiny fraction of all that’s happening in the election battle:

It’s important to remember that polls don’t vote, people do.  As much as they can provide some directional insight, polls do not determine the election – and different pollsters have different methodologies – some of which have a better track record than others. Historically, the polls will go up during and after each candidate’s nominating convention. They will fluctuate throughout the general election. In order to demonstrate momentum, you will also sometimes see the respective campaigns highlight the specific polls that show them ahead. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama Campaign had its own internal pollsters who were able to more accurately gauge the electorate than public pollsters because they did more accurate sampling – including new technologies such as conducting opinion surveys with users of mobile phones instead of just calling landlines. This allowed them to be able to more effectively identify where additional resources needed to be deployed – especially within the battleground states.

If you just can’t stay away from the poll results, I recommend only looking at state-by-state polling – because we really have a state-by-state election – and looking at several different kinds of polls, including “polls of polls,” where they look across a wide array of polls with different methodologies and track trends.