Did the Electoral College fail America last night?

Last night, Donald Trump tweeted that the “electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.”  His concerns were echoed by others who watched as Mitt Romney temporarily led in the popular vote, despite a looming electoral defeat.  A Rasmussen poll shows lack of support for the institution in the wake of yesterday’s election.

On a personal note, I woke up this morning to voice and emails from Republicans.  They were asking if the Electoral College failed us yesterday. How, these correspondents asked, could a decent man lose to an incumbent who urged his supporters to vote “for revenge”?  The popular vote totals are so close. Romney won more counties than Barack Obama. Did the Electoral College fail? Should we ditch it?

No. The Electoral College did not fail us; it needs to be kept, even if Obama has been reelected. I am as disappointed as any other Romney supporter right now. I thought we would do better, especially given some of the analysis of early voting coming out of Ohio during the past few weeks.  But my disappointment is aimed at the outcome, not at the election system itself.

Obama’s Coalition

First, let’s start with the fact that the Electoral College does not—and cannot—prevent Americans from making bad choices. It doesn’t guarantee that the candidate with the best ideas will get elected. All it can do is guarantee that the person who did the best job of building a national coalition gets elected.

Of 2000, I’ve said that neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush did a particularly good job of building a national coalition, but Republicans did slightly better. Of this year, I would say essentially the same thing, except Democrats did slightly better.

Obama did much better among minority groups than Romney did. Romney, failed, especially, to reach out to Hispanic voters. He secured only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from McCain’s 31 percent in 2008 and Bush’s 35 percent in 2000.  He similarly failed among young voters, women, and Jewish voters. Amazingly, Romney even failed to achieve a majority of Catholics, despite new, costly health care regulations that violate the religious liberty of this group.

I don’t think Romney’s message of fiscal responsibility was unappealing to voters, but he was probably not the best standard bearer for the message. Instead, the Obama campaign successfully painted a picture of Romney as an out-of-touch, rich, white guy who could not possibly understand what the average person is going through. Of course, many voters recognize that America’s fiscal path is unsustainable, and they want to do something about it. But many other voters are also in a situation where they are receiving government handouts (and not paying the taxes that are about to increase). It is hard to vote against your own pocketbook under normal circumstances.  If you are not sure that a candidate will really be looking out for you, it surely becomes twice as difficult to cast that ballot.

Certainty, Despite Worries

Second, the Electoral College delivered one undisputed benefit to us last night. Despite weeks of worrying by media commentators, the Electoral College gave us a certain and definitive outcome relatively early yesterday evening.  Approximately 2 percentage points separates the men in the national popular vote total and one state, Florida, remains undecided as I write this.  Yet we all know who won because of Obama’s 100 point margin in the electoral vote.

No lawsuits.  No weeks of uncertainty.  Just another definitive outcome, as is the Electoral College’s habit.  The 2000 election was a rarity.

Both Parties have Work to Do

At the end of the day, both parties have work to do. Democratic strength still remains a little too focused in densely populated urban areas, and Republicans need to do a better job of reaching out to minority groups. National popular vote totals are legally irrelevant, yet they demonstrate a stark divide between red and blue. This divide can be overcome; we should not give up. We’ve been here before, and we’ve gotten past it. The Electoral College helped then, and it can help now.

In the late 1800s, an equally stark division between red and blue gripped the country. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Republicans dominated the north and west (248 electors), while Democrats had a strong hold on the South (153 electors). Democrats could never win without picking up at least a few northern/western states.  Republicans could win with only the red-leaning states, but it was a close call.  Both political parties had incentives to reach out to voters that did not fall within their natural constituencies.  That was a healthy dynamic that eventually helped the North/South divide to melt away.  It can do the same today.

One additional step should be taken, however.  We face a challenge that our ancestors did not face.  Today, many decisions have been centralized in D.C.; these policy decisions used to be left to the states. We should do everything we can to return power to the states.  There is no reason to force California and Texas to agree on environmental policy, for instance. Much of the anger and toxicity in our political environment is simply the result of trying to force one-size-fits all solutions on a country as diverse and large as our own.  There is no need for it.

The weeks ahead will see much commentary about what the election means.  But one thing we already know is that the Electoral College has served us well for more than 200 years, as I have written before.  It continues to do so today.