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An Analogy to Explain the Electoral College


2012, another Presidential election year! Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal, man or woman, black or white, sane or insane...VOTE! And if the pundits and pollsters are correct, this year's presidential election is going to be a tight contest. With that in mind, and with the memories of the 2000 election fading into history, here is a helpful explanation of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College confounded many people in that infamous 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, along with those hanging chads. For those who are too young to remember, or perhaps you chose to wipe it from your memory, the 2000 election was incredibly close in the popular vote. In fact, Al Gore appeared to have collected more votes nationally than did George W., but the state of Florida's delegate count in the Electoral College proved to be the difference in Bush's victory. How can that be? If more people voted for Al Gore than for George Bush, he should be the President, right? Not so fast! It turns out the simple notion of "he who gets the most votes wins" isn't entirely accurate. On the surface, that may seem peculiar, to say the least. So before it happens again in 2012, be ready for it with this simple analogy.


For the record, I am not a big fan of analogies. They are over used, and often flawed. To be effective, the analogy must clearly parallel the subject, simplifying the complex. In a debate, your opponent can easily poke holes in a bad analogy making your argument appear weak. As a result you spend time and energy defending a bad analogy while your original argument is lost, no matter how strong your position may be. An ill-conceived analogy may do more harm than good. "You're comparing apples to oranges," they will say. A lousy analogy can leave you with nothing but fruit salad. However, in this case, I believe this simple comparison can be useful to make the Electoral College palatable.


Play Ball!

In baseball, the team who scores the most runs wins. It couldn't be simpler, right? Here's a scenario to consider. In a rather high scoring affair, the Red Sox scored 20 runs while the Cubs scored 18. (It's my analogy, I get to pick the teams) The Red Sox win! Not so fast...

I am not referring to ONE GAME. This is the World Series! We have to take a look at each game.

Game One

In a classic pitcher's duel, the Red Sox lose a 1-0 squeaker in Fenway.

Game Two

The Cubbie's bats come alive, and they pound the Sox 8-2.

Game Three

The Series switches to Wrigley Field, but the Sox take the game 4-1.

Game Four

The Red Sox hammer two grand slams along with a 2-run homer in a 10-4 pummeling.

Game Five

Both teams utilize their bull pens masterfully, but the Cubs eke out a 3-2 win.

Game Six

The Cubs bats are silenced as the Red Sox shut them out 2-0.

Game Seven

It takes 12 innings before a walk-off solo home run gives the Chicago Cubs a 1-0 victory and their long awaited World Series title!

Although the Red Sox scored more runs than the Cubs, 20-18, the Cubs won more games, 4-3. This is analogous to the Electoral College system for electing the President. Each state is like a separate game, and it is the number of states that determines the winner, not the popular vote total. In other words, Candidate A may win one state by a landslide and receive 12 electoral votes, while Candidate B may win another state in a close race and receive 13 electoral votes. Candidate A may have more total votes in those two states combined, but Candidate B has more Electoral delegates. The Cubs may have won by a big margin in Game 2, but it only counts as ONE win in the best of seven series. Yes, there is a small hiccup in this analogy in that each state has a different value. The Electoral College is not akin to a 50 game World Series, it is a touch more complex than that. But the analogy works to dispel the simple notion that scoring the most runs is what it takes to win the World Series.

A tennis analogy would also work. The number of SETS won determines the winner of the match, not the number of games won or points scored. Or, if you are a golf fan, think of the Electoral College as a match play round, where the number of HOLES won decides the victor, not the stroke count. I just happen to be a baseball fan, and I wanted to present a scenario where the Cubs win a World Series.

The 2000 Presidential Election

The infamous RED and BLUE states along with their Electoral College representatives in the 2000 Presidential Election.

The infamous RED and BLUE states along with their Electoral College representatives in the 2000 Presidential Election.

Pros and Cons

I'm not here to defend the system. This is just meant to be an easy way to explain the process. Arguments exist for and against the Electoral College. Those in favor believe the system prevents a candidate from winning a national election simply by focusing on highly populated urban areas. Also, the Electoral College system enhances the power of the individual States over the central Federal government, which some believe was the intention of the founding fathers. Opponents proclaim that the system renders the popular vote somewhat irrelevant, causing outcomes such as the 2000 election. In our nation's history, there have been only two other Presidential elections with similar outcomes, in 1876 and in 1888. Do these three elections prove the fallibility of the Electoral College, or do they represent an acceptable number of "flukes?"

The Electoral College, arguably, has a negative effect on establishing a third party, an idea that has supporters and critics as well. That, however, will have to be the subject of a separate HUB. The baseball analogy only works with TWO teams.

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Jim and Beyond (author) from The desert Southwest...for now. on January 25, 2013:

Sorry for the delayed response, Jack, but I'm glad I could help.

Vinrouge on November 03, 2012:

Hello Jim,

I'm English, living in France. Can't be exact but think it must be about 30 different Google searches I've made, to try to find an explanation of how the USA electoral college works. In particular, how it's possible to win the election on electoral votes and not the popular vote. With two days to go I finally got it!! Many thanks. Now starting a search to see how baseball is scored?!?!

Cheers, Jack

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 20, 2012:

mvymvy: I think I just earned 3 semester credits, but Wow - so much information I appreciate reading. You described by situation to a T. In my county, in my state, my vote is meaningless because I'm not a died in the wool Republican. My only national representation is in the White House, yet the president got elected without my vote even counting. It's frustrating in the extreme. I write my congressmen regularly and implore them to represent me - one of their constituents. But they never (or rarely) do.

Jim and Beyond (author) from The desert Southwest...for now. on May 17, 2012:

Thanks for all the comments. That was quite a detailed response mvymvy!

There was also a recent Presidential election in which the winner only received 43% of the vote! One could say that 57% of the voters DID NOT want him to be President, yet Bill Clinton won in the three way race of 1992 against G.H.W. Bush (37.5%) and Ross Perot (18.9%) The Electoral College count? 370 for Clinton, 168 for Bush, a goose egg for Perot.

Dolphan5 from Warwick R.I on May 16, 2012:

Hey Jim,

I thought your analogy was a good way to explain the debacle that is the electoral college,But I have to agree with adjkp25's assesment that the only way the Cubbies would win the World Series is in an analogy.

Now Mvymvy also chooses to use your article to point out (quite correctly I might add)just how much of a debacle the Electoral college is. Politics is such an interesting subject, and filled with so much fodder for cartoonists!

Keep up the good work!

mvymvy on May 16, 2012:

The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation's votes!

mvymvy on May 16, 2012:

With the Electoral College and federalism, the Founding Fathers meant to empower the states to pursue their own interests within the confines of the Constitution. The National Popular Vote is an exercise of that power, not an attack upon it.

The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists who vote as rubberstamps for their party’s presidential candidate. That is not what the Founders intended.

The National Popular Vote bill preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College.

It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don't matter to their candidate.

And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state are wasted and don't matter to candidates. Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it was cast.

Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, in 2012 will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters.

Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

States have the responsibility and power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

Federalism concerns the allocation of power between state governments and the national government. The National Popular Vote bill concerns how votes are tallied, not how much power state governments possess relative to the national government. The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

mvymvy on May 16, 2012:

Most Americans don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state. . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it's wrong for the candidate with the most popular votes to lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.


David from Idaho on May 15, 2012:

I like the analogy but the Cubs winning it all is a stretch :)

Voted up

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 15, 2012:

Too much fun. Keep 'em comin'!

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