Friday, September 19, 2008

A Popular Myth - The Illegitimacy of "Popular Vote" Claims

The 2008 presidential contest is shaping up to be a potential nail-biter, with polls showing voters nearly evenly split between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. Because of how tight the race is, we are once again faced with the possibility of the winner of the electoral college “losing the popular vote”. This is causing concern on the part of many analysts and pundits, who recall one of the controversies of the 2000 election: claims that George W. Bush wasn’t the real winner of the election because he “lost the popular vote”. Some are likewise saying that if McCain or Obama win the electoral college without “winning the popular vote” that the result will be “illegitimate” or the new president will “lack a mandate”.

Even knowledgeable observers seem to have come to accept “winning the popular vote” as some sort of standard, valid means of assessing voter preferences. For example, Nate Silver, the skilled statistician of the election modeling site fivethirtyeight.com, recently raised the issue of what the impact might be of a tied electoral college result being decided by a Democrat-controlled Congress, in the event that John McCain “won the popular vote”.

My problem with all of this is betrayed by my use of quotation marks above: “winning the popular vote” doesn’t mean what most people think it does, and the conclusions that people draw from this bogus metric are myths. Worse, the claims made about the popular vote not only are incorrect, they are very damaging to the electoral process and how the nation assesses election outcomes.


Were the Bronx Bombers “Cheated”?

The year is 1960, and the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates face off against the feared New York Yankees in the World Series. The Pirates take the first game in a squeaker, 6-4, before being blown out in the next two games, the Yankees winning 16-3 and 10-0 to take the lead. The Pirates aren’t demoralized, though – they fight back, winning the next two games 3-2 and 5-2 on the strength of good pitching. But the Bronx Bombers strike again, demolishing the Pirates 12-0 to tie the series at three games each. The pivotal seventh game goes into the bottom of the ninth inning, when Pirate Bill Mazeroski hits a pitch over the left field wall to win the series for Pittsburgh by a score of 10-9.

But wait a minute. Did Pittsburgh really win? I mean, the game of baseball is all about scoring runs, isn’t it? And if we add up the runs, it’s clear the Yankees were better: they outscored Pittsburgh 55-27. Clearly the Yankees were really the winners – the Pirates’ World Series victory was illegitimate!

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? After all, the goal of each team was to win four games, not get the most runs over the course of the series. Yet this is exactly what people do when they talk about “winning the popular vote”. This measure is like adding up runs in a baseball series: it is tallying the votes of 51 separate contests, which is not equivalent to properly measuring popular vote across an entire nation.


The Rules Determine the Goal; the Goal Determines the Strategy

What’s wrong with summing the votes from the various states and the District of Columbia and using those numbers as an indicator of which candidate got the most votes? The problem is the same in politics as it is in baseball: the teams go after a goal based on the rules put in place before the contest begins. As mentioned, the Pirates and Yankees went into their series knowing that the objective was to win four games, not get the most total runs. Similarly, both political parties go into a presidential election knowing that the goal is 270 electoral votes, not getting 50.1% of the popular vote.

In turn, the goal dictates the strategy used in the contest. In both baseball and politics, each team has only a limited number of resources, and to win, they must allocate them in the most effective manner possible. Consider game 3 of the 1960 World Series: the Pirates were already down 10-0 before the game was half over. They might not have necessarily given up on winning such a game, but since they knew they had a long series ahead of them, they might well have tried to save some of their pitching strength for later games. Similarly, the Yankees probably wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops to try to score as many runs as possible, since the game was well in hand. Both teams would try much harder in a close game where they each had to fight hard to win.

This happens in exactly the same manner in presidential elections. Consider the three states with the most voters in the nation: California, Texas and New York. Have you seen Barack Obama or John McCain running ads or campaigning heavily in these places? Of course not. Why? Because they are “laughers”, like a 16-3 baseball game. Both Obama and McCain are trying to win electoral votes, not popular votes, and since the outcome of these three states is already clear, they won’t waste resources on them. They will save their advertising money and other tools for the “battleground” states like Ohio, Colorado and Florida, which are equivalent to “pitching duels” in baseball.

The very same distortions occur when it comes to voters and their enthusiasm levels: people know when their presidential vote matters a great deal, and when it doesn’t, and this impacts turn-out rates. For example, which state is more likely to have a high percentage of voters for this year’s presidential election: Nevada, where John McCain currently holds a lead of less than 5%, or Oklahoma, where his lead is over 30%?


I Come to Neither Bury Nor Praise the Electoral College

There are arguments both for and against eliminating the electoral college and going to a straight across-the-nation single vote for president, but this article is not intended to argue for or against this change. Rather, the point is that unless and until we do make this move, any conclusions drawn about the “popular vote” are not only not legally binding, they are deceptive and damaging to assessments of presidential elections.

If we really want to elect a president based on who would win a majority of votes in a straight popular vote election across the nation, then we need to change the rules in advance. With the new goal made clear, both sides could then develop strategies intended to pursue it. And a straight popular vote presidential election would be a very different one from what we are accustomed to.

In such a vote, individual states cease to matter, and the objective would be to appeal to masses of voters directly. Both Republicans and Democrats would be heavily invested in the big states, because that’s where the people are. Even if John McCain were behind by a lot in states like California and New York, it would be worthwhile for him to campaign there to narrow Obama’s lead. The same would be true of Obama in states like Texas or Georgia.

We would see huge advertising efforts nationwide, because every vote would be worth the same amount in any state. We would not see massive advertising efforts in small states like New Hampshire and Nevada. In fact, we’d probably see little state-targeted advertising at all.

But this is not how we do things today, and until a change occurs, any “popular vote” numbers drawn by summations of 51 independent state tallies are bogus. Some might argue that even if these popular vote sums aren't perfect, we should use them anyway because that's the best measure of popular vote sentiment that we have, but this is a fallacy. Bad information is worse than no information – we are far better off accepting the fact that we don't know what the true popular vote totals would be across the nation, than drawing harmful, incorrect conclusions from invalid numbers.

13 comments:

weav said...

good article. I agree completely. I just remember them talking about the same crap during the democratic nomination race, with caucuses versus primaries. Its amazing how quickly people forget this stuff.

Aaron Abend said...

Excellent analysis. Same argument applied to the primary season as well. It's simply not reasonable to argue about the rules after the game is underway once you have agreed to play.

Jenny said...

Thanks for this article. As someone who isn't exactly a political genius, this clear and helpful analysis definitely changed my opinion.

Scott said...

I can't believe I completely agree with an article posted on HuffPo. Great analysis.

Ryan said...

This baseball comparison is such an "apples-to-some fruit never heard of" analogy. Really poor. To compare a series, which has multiple games, to an election, which is decided once among multiple contests is not an accurate analog. It's a logical fallacy built on an improper argument.

Now, if you want to use baseball for this comparison, here is how it works: As you were trying to explain that the election is the result of multiple contests (the many states), then the correct comparison would be a single baseball game composed of multiple innings--not a series, which would be like holding a run-off election.

Now, if we were to use this correct analogy of "innings of a game" instead of "games in a series," he could more accurately apply your logic as follows, albeit to opposite conclusions. Let me explain: If we were to take the winner of a baseball game as who won the most innings (or had the most hits, either one), you would create a system fans would reject, as it does not account for the total runs in (or votes, in the analogy). Thus, you could have a contest where a team won the game having only scored one run, winning multiple innings and yet be bested by the opposing team in the last inning by six runs. That, my friend, is the Electoral College--a system predicated on the winning of individual innings (states) over the course of one game rather than the most runs in (votes).

This analogy is far more correct and only goes to underscore how the electoral system is flawed. If you think otherwise, go take your wealth of baseball knowledge and try to explain to fans how the winner of a game should be based on the winner of innings and not runs batted in.

And seriously, this shouldn't have even been written. This column is trying too hard to be clever. Don't try so hard and you will write better. Trust me. You have it up there, just break it off.

Best,

Ryan Rose

Charles M. Kozierok said...

Thanks for the positive feedback.

Ryan, thanks to you as well, but...

"It's a logical fallacy built on an improper argument."

You say this, but you haven't explained why the analogy is improper or fallacious. I see no significance to the fact that the contests occur at the same time versus different times. The same arguments about individual contests versus the collective whole would apply to the primaries as well, as Aaron said.

"the correct comparison would be a single baseball game composed of multiple innings"

I suppose you could use this analog as well. But I don't see how it is any more valid than mine -- innings don't occur all at the same time any more than games do. And I believe it is certainly more confusing.

"This analogy is far more correct and only goes to underscore how the electoral system is flawed. If you think otherwise, go take your wealth of baseball knowledge and try to explain to fans how the winner of a game should be based on the winner of innings and not runs batted in."

You appear to have missed the entire point of the article. It was not to argue for or against the electoral college, only to argue in favor of consistency in measuring outcomes based on how a contest is conducted.

There's nothing inherently wrong with what you suggested, counting winners based on how many innings are won as opposed to total runs in a game. In fact, there are sports and games that work in exactly that way: tennis would be an example of one where you must win individual subcontests to win a match as a whole.

*All that matters is consistency* -- the teams agree on how they will conduct the contest and then score the contest based on those rules.

"And seriously, this shouldn't have even been written. This column is trying too hard to be clever. Don't try so hard and you will write better. Trust me. You have it up there, just break it off."

Now you're just being insulting. I didn't write this piece to "try to be clever", I wrote it because I believe in the issue and the arguments I made. I've felt this way since 2000 when people kept making a big fuss about how the popular vote "proved" that Al Gore should have been president. (The Florida shenanigans is a separate issue.)

Vicki Cana said...

Charles,
I really, truly like your response style (disagreeing, without being disagreeable). (I like your posting style too.) It's great to read a blog and feel like I'm being informed, as opposed to feeling guilty that I'm filling my mind with anger, venom &/ sarcasm, etc. in my effort to 'educate' myself. KEEP UP YOUR FINE REPORTING AND EDITORIALIZING! I, for one, am having my eyes (and thought processes)opened more to politics/politicians than ever before.

Charles M. Kozierok said...

Thanks so much, Vicki! Though I thought I was sometimes a bit too heavy on the anger myself. :)

BaseballCoach said...

As much as I disagree with you on other posts, I completely agree here. Good Analogy.

And while I realize that your intent is not to defend the Electoral College System, I would advise Ryan, who believes that the EC System is flawed, to read up on the concept of Federalism that our founding fathers embraced.

dvdmgsr said...

The Rules Determine the Goal; the Goal Determines the Strategy

Of course they do. You're stating a truism pointing out that the winner of the Electoral College is the winner of the election. Everyone understands that. Nate Silver understands it. You are aware what the name "five thirty-eight" refers to?

The question about the Electoral College is whether the rules are optimal. There are arguments that a straight popular vote tally is the most straightforward and fair way to assay a majority. There are counter-arguments to it, but it's a very reasonable stance.

If people claim that an electoral college victory/popular vote loss completely lacks "legitimacy" (i.e., invalid), then they are obviously full of it. Who exactly is arguing this? Arguing that its "legitimacy" might be undermined in the sense of a weakened mandate or something like that, that's another story.

And the World Series is indeed not a valid analogy, because there is an underlying definition of a valid baseball contest. A baseball contest is defined in terms of individual games, and individual games are decided in terms of runs. Deciding the World Series winner based on something other than games would make no sense. The total number of runs scored across >1 game does not constitute a baseball game, so it would not be a valid contest. In the case of elections, a nationwide vote tally would represent a valid assay of a majority, just as a statewide tally does. Therefore, it would be a logical option to determine the winner of elections based on a nationwide tally.

Obviously, the rules are clear: we do not use a nationwide tally in this country, we use an electoral college system. And the rules indeed determine the goal. But your argument that it would be irrational to do so, using the World Series as a supporting analogy, holds no water.

Cugel said...

Charles, you're simply ignoring what "legitimacy" means!

It's not about "winning" per se, but about legitimacy. And "legitimacy" in a democracy is NOT simply about winning elections no matter how you do it! It's about claiming a "mandate" to govern, not only from your supporters, but from your opponents supporters as well.

Everybody agrees that winning 4 games out of 7 is the "legitimate" way to win the world series.

But, not everybody agrees that our arcane rules for selecting Presidents are fair or proper. People do NOT support the electoral college. We may accept that those are the "rules" but we don't LIKE the rules!

Most people instinctively feel that an election where the candidate with the most votes didn't win is "unfair" or improper somehow, victory through some corrupt trick or cheat built into the system, like the "rotten bourough" elections of 19th century England where extreme gerrymandering made the districts totally unrepresentative.

Most of the time it simply doesn't matter, because the candidate with the most popular votes wins. In rare cases he doesn't though, and those examples have been pointed out as examples "where the system didn't work" in history texts for 100 years now.

People become angry and bitter, and the divisions in society grow larger. Most other countries think our system of government is insane for that very reason! In their societies an election result like 2000 would lead to a popular insurrection or possibly civil war or a military coup, as partisans from both sides take to the streets in outrage.

Saying "those are the rules of the game" changes nothing!

Legitimacy isn't simply about winning, according to the "rules" it's about convincing the people who DIDN'T support you that you are their President too, even if they might not agree with everything the President does.

This is exactly why Bush is the most unpopular President ever. He ran very polarizing campaigns, then rubbed every Democrat's nose in it by the way he governed. As soon as his policies ran into trouble he had no support to fall back on.

That's why I pray Obama wins the popular vote, despite the temptation to enjoy the sense of ironic karma if he wins the electoral college while losing the popular vote.

Charles M. Kozierok said...

"The question about the Electoral College is whether the rules are optimal. There are arguments that a straight popular vote tally is the most straightforward and fair way to assay a majority. There are counter-arguments to it, but it's a very reasonable stance."

I agree, but that's not the point of this article.

The point here is that you cannot get a proper idea of what a straight up vote would be by running a campaign based on the EC and then adding up 51 separate numbers.

"Obviously, the rules are clear: we do not use a nationwide tally in this country, we use an electoral college system. And the rules indeed determine the goal. But your argument that it would be irrational to do so, using the World Series as a supporting analogy, holds no water."

Again, that's not my argument. My argument is simple: don't evaluate a contest run by one set of rules using another.

Charles M. Kozierok said...

"Legitimacy isn't simply about winning, according to the "rules" it's about convincing the people who DIDN'T support you that you are their President too, even if they might not agree with everything the President does."

But that's entirely the point of my article -- people are making this judgment using an invalid metric.