WASHINGTON — If we elected the president by popular vote, we would have heard some different spin going into the debates. With the presidential election looking closer in the national polls than it does in the swing states, the pressure on Mitt Romney from his party and the pundits alike would have been rather less demanding.
In one sense, this is surprising. Our antiquated Electoral College actually gives Republicans an advantage. By guaranteeing every state three electors regardless of population, the system offers outsized influence to smaller, mostly Republican rural states.
In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Bush became president not only because the Supreme Court awarded him Florida but also because sparsely populated Western states, from the Dakotas through the Rockies and up to Alaska, boosted his Electoral College total.
In 2012, the system is working in President Obama’s favor. If all the pundit talk during the Reagan years was of an “Electoral College lock” for the GOP, the lock has rusted into uselessness since Bill Clinton first picked it in 1992.
Instead, we have what National Journal political writer Ron Brownstein has aptly dubbed the “blue wall” because Democrats now have more states reliably in their corner than the Republicans do. Since 1992, Democrats have never received fewer than 251 electoral votes. In the same period, Republicans averaged just under 167 electoral votes in the three elections they lost. Obama starts with a bigger electoral vote base and thus has more paths to victory than Romney.
There are ample grounds for wariness of sweeping structural explanations in politics. A case can be made that Obama is doing well in the swing states for reasons having more to do with the campaign than with any wall. The president and his allied super PAC have simply been more focused and disciplined than the comparable Romney efforts. Bill Burton, one of the maestros behind Priorities USA Action, the main pro-Obama group, argues that various entities advertising on Romney’s behalf have put forth a cacophony of themes and messages that have yet to cohere into a strong, persuasive argument.