As has become my habit during presidential election years, I will start running a series about the Electoral College: What myths persist about the system and what is the reality? Please stay tuned for Myth #2 next Sunday as well.
Myth: Most states are ignored by presidential campaigns because of the Electoral College. Only swing states matter. A direct election system would fix this.
Fact: There are two reasons why this perception is incorrect.
First, an honest assessment of American history shows that no state is permanently “safe” or “swing.” The identity of these states changes all the time.
History is replete with examples. As recently as 2016, several blue wall states surprised everyone: They voted red for the first time in decades. It would seem they felt taken for granted by the Democratic Party. On the other side of the political aisle, the tiny, safe, red state of Utah threatened to go rogue. Voters didn’t like Donald Trump, but they didn’t like Hillary Clinton, either. For several weeks, the nation wondered if Utah might vote third party.
If a small, safe, red state like Utah “doesn’t matter,” then why did the Republican Party immediately dispatch vice presidential candidate Mike Pence to the state in the closing days of the campaign? Pence's action was important, as it helped bring Utah back into the fold. Meanwhile, if Hillary Clinton had taken similar measures in her blue wall states, she probably could have brought those states back into the fold, too. She would have won the election. It was that close.
Other examples abound: Remember that Texas used to vote Democratic (and is now threatening to go purple). California used to vote Republican. George W. Bush won his victory in 2000 with the help of one state that was supposed to be a safe blue state: West Virginia. Likewise, a whole slew of southern states voted for Bill Clinton, but they never voted for Barack Obama. In recent years, we’ve heard a fair amount of commentary about “new” swing states such as Virginia or North Carolina. Well, at least, we heard such commentary—briefly. Now some people contend that Virginia “isn't a swing state anymore.”
In other words, even if “only swing states matter,” these states are constantly changing.
The reality is that presidential candidates can't get to a majority of 270 electors without some combination of safe and swing states. The math simply doesn’t work otherwise. Every voter in every state matters. No state can safely be taken for granted unless candidates are prepared to feel the ramifications at the polls.
Second, presidential elections are not only about the TV commercials and campaign visits in the final weeks and months leading into Election Day.
Presidential elections are as much about the four years of governance before the election as they are about the final commercials. How did California voters react when President Barack Obama decided not to allow construction of the Keystone Pipeline? How did Texas voters react when President George W. Bush issued his executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds for certain types of embryonic stem cell research? What do voters think of Donald Trump's decisions to build a border wall? How many voters will be influenced by Brett Kavanaugh's 2018 nomination to the Supreme Court and the response of each party? Such decisions and their ramifications are part of governing, but they are also at least a part of “campaigning.” They do as much as a TV commercial (if not more) to influence voting decisions—as candidates and incumbents certainly know.
In short, “safe” states are not being ignored. They simply made up their minds earlier in the process, based upon the years of decisions that preceded the election. When a state ceases to be satisfied, it quickly lets its political party—and the world!—know. Such states either become safe for the opposite political party (as West Virginia did following the election of 2000) or they become a new swing state (as some of the blue wall states have this year).
At the end of the day, political parties and presidential candidates can’t ignore any state unless they want to risk losing that state’s electoral votes.
Finally, consider that all of this is better than the incentives inherent in a national popular vote system.
In a national popular vote system, victory goes to the candidate who can get the most individual votes. Naturally, the states and cities with the most individuals can expect to benefit. Rather than "swing states," the focus will be on a handful of big urban areas.