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The Democratic Party’s Missing Electoral College Game Plan

Rule number one of politics:  The first step in exercising political power is to get elected.  Somewhere along the line the Democratic Party has forgotten this.  Why this is important is that right now it looks that Democrats are on the road to another 2020 presidential popular vote victory and a loss in the electoral college.  Simply put, the Democrats have no electoral college victory plan.

The reality is that  the only number that matters in US presidential politics is 270.  That is the number of electoral votes you need to  win.  US presidential elections are not really national popular votes; they are 50 separate state elections plus the  District of Columbia where in 49 instances the winner of the state’s popular vote nets the candidate the entire trove of its electoral votes.  The combination of  the electoral college and this winner-take-all structure means that effectively in 40 states the 2020 presidential election is over.  How New York, California, Massachusetts, Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma will vote is not in doubt.  The presidential candidates know this too.  The race for the White House comes down to a handful of swing states, prominent among them are Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  As Trump demonstrated in his 2016 Midwest strategy, winning them was key to his victory and had less than 90,000 votes flipped in them, Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college victory and not simply the popular vote.

Political coalitions, like fences, are only as strong as the weakest link.  Democrats need a strategy to hold all the states they won in 2016 and then how to pick up Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin.  Yes, they could try to flip Arizona, Georgia, or Texas as some pipedreams hope for, but the reality is winning them is distant and difficult.  They key is flipping critical swing states.

What is interesting about these swing states is that their electorates are generally to the left of recent Republican Party presidential candidates and to the right of Democratic Party candidates.  In many ways they are states more centrist than the non-swing states, and certainly more in the middle compared to the overall Democratic Party base.

There are two ways to flip these  swing states.  One option is to move swing voters back to the Democrats.  But here what we know is that who is a swing voter is less and less likely to be someone who moves back and forth between voting Democratic or Republican and more so whether they swing into or out of voting.  Democrats did badly in 2016 because swing voters, especially suburban  females, stayed home or did not vote for them.  In 2018, those suburban females came out for Democrats.  Winning in 2020 is getting these women to vote.  What we know about these voters is that they are socially moderate to liberal but are not left of center.  This is a more centrist strategy.

Option two is moving voters who do not normally vote to show up.  Presumably these voters are more liberal as they constitute younger people, perhaps people of color.  These are the people who perhaps resonate with issues such mandatory Medicare for all.  These individuals are hard to motivate to vote and they may be a smaller percentage of the potential electorate in swing as opposed to non-swing states.

The point here is that a viable strategy for the Democrats to win the 2020 election relies upon them winning critical swing states, whether it is running more to the center or to the left.

Unfortunately, the debates so far, the 2020 primary and caucus schedule, and the candidate messages are setting the Democrats  up to fail.  Consider first recent polling data.  In critical states such as Michigan ,  Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin  mandatory Medicare for all is unpopular (or is divisive at best) despite the fact that nationally a majority of Democrats support it.  Nationally, only 41% support eliminating private insurance for a mandatory Medicare plan for all.   A pledge by Warren or Sanders to push for this as an issue may not play well in the swing states.

Two, the current so-called debate structure does not favor or emphasize winnability of Democrats in critical swing states.  Instead, its combination of popularity in national opinion polls and national fundraising keeps potential popular vote candidates alive but does little to winnow candidates to those who are viable in swing states.

Three, consider the primary and caucus schedule.  While arguably Iowa (February 3, caucus) and New Hampshire (February 11, primary) are swing states, the critical states of Michigan (March 10, )  Wisconsin (April 7), and Pennsylvania (April 28) come after the March 3, Super Tuesday which features 14 states and includes California and Texas.  Super Tuesday could well filter out candidates who could run well in swing states because of either the costs or ideological orientation of these 14.  Of these 14 states, arguably only Minnesota and Virginia are swing.  Running and winning the gauntlet of Super Tuesday does not mean one is prepared to win in the swing states that will decide the road to 270.

Perhaps the electoral college is unfair and needs to be eliminated or reformed.  But it is a reality at least for next year.  Democrats need a process that vets candidates and strategy to win the electoral college in 2020.  They do not have it.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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