In the first presidential contest since the razor-thin election of 2000, it seems as if unprecedented attention is being paid to state polls. This is understandable. However, a bit of perspective is in order.
That fact is that the Electoral College, for the most part, closely tracks the results in the national popular vote. For example, in the last presidential election George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by 0.5 percent but won a bare electoral majority with 271 votes. In 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford by two percent in the popular vote, yielding 279 electoral votes. In 1996, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole by six percent in the popular vote, which led to a 370 electoral vote tally. And Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in 1972 by 23 percent in the popular vote, giving Nixon 521 votes in the college.
In the examples above, one can see a magnification effect of the electoral vote upon the popular vote. The percent margin in the popular vote is multiplied into a larger percent margin in the Electoral College.
The results of presidential races in the post-war period suggest a trendlooking at those in which no third-party candidate received Electoral College votes (1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000). I used the "forecast" function of MS EXCEL for this data sample. The elections of 1948, 1960, and 1968 were excluded. They were elections in which third-party candidates received significant Electoral College votes. There were significant third-party candidates in 1980, 1992, and 1996, but they received no electoral votes. Furthermore, I chose not to include all presidential elections in order to control for the current system of party competition. We do not have true state political parties in the post-war era as we had prior to the New Deal. When all of the results are placed together in a sample and a forecast trend line run through them, a clear pattern emerges.
|% margin in Pop. Vote||Multiplier||Estimated % margin in|
For the post-war elections included in this analysis, the percent margin of victory in the popular vote is magnified by a factor of approximately 5.5 in the Electoral College victory percentage. For example, the trend line suggests that a 2 percent victory in the popular vote will be magnified by 5.63 to give the winning candidate an 11.26 percent victory in the Electoral College, whichusing 2004 electoral figurestranslates into a 299-239 victory. Put another way, every percentage point of victory in the popular vote adds approximately 14 electoral votes to the minimum of 270 needed to win the Electoral College.
Popular vote margins of less than three percent will generally give the popular-vote winner an electoral victory, but with less than 300 votes. Popular vote margins ranging from 3 to 5 percent tend to give the popular vote winner an electoral victory ranging from 300 to 350 votes. Popular vote victories from 6 to 8 percent push the electoral vote tally towards the 400 mark. And victories over 15 percent will yield the popular vote winner an approximate tally of 500 or more electoral votes.
Keep in mind, however, that this sample is small. It contains only 11 elections. In addition, there were no control variables. Therefore, this analysis should be viewed with caution. However, the general point of this analysis still holds.
Thin margins in the popular vote lead to thin margins in the Electoral College vote. Wide margins in the popular vote lead to wide margins in the Electoral College. This is true because the nation consists of the various states. Trends in the states will be reflected in the national results.
This is not to suggest that we could not have a minority popular vote winner as in 2000 or that the race will not be close. What this brief note does suggest is that the added effort of paying attention to the wild swings in battleground state polling may not be worth it. If the Electoral College race is close enough to be influenced by the quirks of a particular state, then the odds are that the overall national popular vote race is close as well. A keen eye on the major national polls will render a decent estimate of where the race will end up.