Electing an American President: What the Polls Don’t Tell
American Presidential elections are approaching in November, and are getting more attention than normal this year because of two unusually high profile and controversial candidates: Hillary Clinton (Democrat) and Donald Trump (Republican).
Polls as of mid-September suggest a close race. But while polls report voter preferences, it is important to understand that winning also depends on two other issues: first, which voters actually go to the polls, and second, the distribution of those voters by state.
Voter turnout is a major variable: it will depend on candidate enthusiasm, weather, campaign contributions, and the candidate’s level of organization at the state level for getting its supporters to vote. Obama’s experience in community organization is believed to have proved decisive in his election; his campaign’s sophisticated analysis of voter behavior and ability to strategically organize campaign volunteers created a new model for political campaigns.
There is no minimum percentage of voting required for a valid election; turnout is typically 50–60%. Elections are usually relatively close in percentage of total votes, with margins often under 10%. In the current election, two minority parties are currently polling 10–15% of the total, so they also clearly could affect the outcome depending on which major party they take votes from.
Electoral College. It is possible, and has happened in modern history, that the candidate with the most votes will not win the election. George W. Bush actually had 545,816 fewer votes in 2000 than his opponent.
In the end, the outcome of the Presidential election depends on Electoral College votes, a system that was designed from the founding of the United States to recognize 1) states’ rights and 2) the logistical challenges of collecting voter opinions in a horse-and-buggy era. Each state selects representatives who will vote on its behalf. The number of votes a state is entitled to is based on its number of representatives in Congress: two Senators, plus Representatives based on state population. Therefore, smaller states have disproportionate representation. States also have different formulas for choosing their electors: a few distribute votes proportionally, but most use a “winner take all” formula, providing another distortion of actual votes. And, finally, in 21 states the electors are not legally required to vote according to the votes cast in their state. Although they typically do, there have been 157 “faithless electors” in American history, the latest in 2004.
Election of Congressional Representatives. One-third of Senators and all Representatives are chosen along with the President. Voters may choose all candidates in the same Party or split their vote among Parties. Most don’t split their votes, so a strong Presidential candidate can also determine the Party’s influence in the Congress.
Electorate Profile. Many Americans identify with either the Democratic (29%) or Republican (26%) Party, with election outcomes depending on the appeal of candidates to “independent” voters, who currently represent about 40% of eligible voters. Party identification is at a near historical low, and may reflect local politics more than national preference: for example, if a city is heavily Democratic, Republicans may register as Democrats so they can participate in the primary election where local officials are de facto selected.
A significant element in the composition of the electorate is shifting demographics, with ethnic minorities growing rapidly, now constituting about one-third of eligible voters. Democrats tend to favor a greater government role in national life and more progressive social policies (e.g., same-sex marriage, abortion rights), while Republicans generally favor small government and more conservative social policies.
An old Chinese curse seems to fit this election: “May you live in interesting times.”