Early in 2008, Senator Barack Obama drew a crowd of more than 14,000 to the Boise State campus, speaking at the Taco Bell Arena to “the biggest political rally the state had seen in more than 50 years,” according to New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan. Given the historic proportions, one might expect that Obama’s galvanizing effect may have presaged a surge of top-of-the-ticket Democratic voters in Idaho. Instead, he lost the state to John McCain by 25 points, a margin of defeat exceeded only by his losses in Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.

Obama’s major defeat in Idaho was no surprise; a Democrat has not won Idaho’s presidential contest since LBJ took the state in 1964. But Obama, like most Democratic candidates in recent history, ceded the Gem State (along with other conservative strongholds throughout the interior west and deep south) to McCain well before the campaign had even begun. Moreover, Obama was not alone in preemptively abandoning whole states; the Republican ticket wrote off traditionally blue states like Hawaii, Delaware and Rhode Island.

In an election where the race appeared to be close and up for grabs, at least until the economic collapse and the fall of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008, it would seem that prematurely writing off a state would be foolhardy and unwise. Because of the way the United States elects presidents, however, these decisions on where to campaign and where to ignore are essential. Map of 2008 presidential candidate travels via CNN.com The root of this decision making is the Electoral College, an oft-misunderstood and equally controversial institution that has existed since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788.

How does the Electoral College affect Idaho?

Designed as a way to balance popular preferences with elite control of national policy making, the Electoral College placed a check on the electorate’s ability to select the nation’s chief executive. It also was supposed to protect the interests of small states, such as Idaho and most of the other Mountain West states. However, George Edwards, a leading authority on the American presidency, has shown that small states do not necessarily have shared interests different from those of medium or large states, and even if there were such small state interests, the Electoral College fails to protect them. According to Edwards,Why the Electoral College is Bad for America by George C. Edward III “Contrary to the claims of its supporters, candidates do not pay attention to small states. The Electoral College actually distorts the campaign so that candidates ignore many large and most small states and devote most of their attention to competitive states.” Not only do candidates disproportionately avoid visiting small states like Idaho, but they also minimize their advertising and media engagement in all but the most competitive small states. Obama visited Idaho in February 2008, well before his nomination and certainly before his campaign became competitive.

This inattention means more than the conspicuous absence of campaign events, political commercials and recorded phone calls. It also means candidates do not need to build bridges with influential leaders in those states, which can have substantive consequences in the future. In competitive small and medium-sized states, where candidates invest significant time and resources, the economies of those states benefit from the influx of additional campaign expenditures, and the promises made as coalitions are built between presidential campaigns and state leaders can bring significant post-election resources to those states. Consider competitive mid-sized states like Ohio and North Carolina, or even a competitive small state like New Mexico; when policy needs emerge, such as infrastructure repairs or federal appointments, presidents are often eager to repay supporters. This process works both retroactively for prior support and prospectively, anticipating future elections.

With a system in place like the Electoral College, voters in small and uncompetitive states have little ability to draw the attention of presidential candidates. As a result, for Democrats in Idaho and Republicans in Hawaii, there is virtually nothing they can do to make their vote matter in any substantive way. For evidence, consider the campaign strategies of the Romney and Obama organizations in the current election.

The Electoral College and the 2012 Election

So far, in 2012, media analysis and campaign resource allocation shows that once again, the Electoral College drives where candidates visit, advertise, and mobilize. Karl Rove, credited as the engineer of George W. Bush’s two Electoral College victories (though the first one came with an assist from the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision), made a prescient argument in the Wall Street Journal in May. Rove argued that between the stability of conservative leads in states that went for McCain in 2008 and subtle changes in the allocation of electors across states following the 2010 census, Mitt Romney’s focus will be almost entirely on five states: Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. Each of these states are medium-sized, with the exception of Florida, which has 29 electoral votes. Moreover, the first three in this list are traditional Republican-friendly states that Senator John McCain lost in Obama’s 2008 surge. If the votes in these states return to traditional levels, with diminished enthusiasm for Obama among youth and independent voters, Romney will be quite close to victory. If he can win Florida and Ohio—both states that George W. Bush won in 2004 and where Obama’s numbers are down since 2008—he will only need to win one other state in the country that McCain lost and victory will be his. According to campaign aides, the states being looked at most closely for this last margin include New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, with Michigan (where Romney was born and his father served three terms as governor) and Pennsylvania viewed as long shots but still in the conversation.

Barack Obama’s electoral strategy in many ways parallels Romney’s, a reflection of his need to simply keep as many of the states that went for him in 2008 on his side as possible. He will almost certainly see some states defect into Romney’s camp, but which ones and how many will determine the election’s outcome. Seasoned analysts see the election as one in which Obama has a built-in advantage, for in the words of NPR Senior Editor Ron Elving, Obama “needs far less from the tossup states to get to 270, which is the magic number that represents the majority in the Electoral College.” That he needs far less is a reflection of the fact that the states where the president is currently winning or considered likely to win “have more people and, therefore, more votes in the Electoral College than the states where Romney is currently winning or likely to win.” As a result, the Obama campaign has the luxury of seeing several distinct paths to victory, including a western sweep (with victories in Colorado and Nevada) or a strong performance in the upper south (i.e., North Carolina and Virginia). In terms of key states, the Obama campaign is targeting Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Florida is populated with a range of demographic sub-groups that are consistent components of the Democratic coalition (i.e., senior citizens, racial minority groups), while Virginia’s demographic composition is increasingly moving away from the traditional southern heritage to that of a state populated by highly educated government employees with moderate to progressive social values. North Carolina presents a less certain target, though one the Obama campaign sees as worthy of investment, as evidenced by its decision to host the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the state’s largest city.

Prospects for Reform

The two major candidates’ willingness, if not eagerness, to embrace Electoral College-driven campaign strategy suggests that, despite the controversies involved, Americans are unlikely to see changes to the presidential selection process in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, Vice-President Al Gore, who lost the White House in 2000 in the most recent Electoral College crisis election, recently came out in favor of a California-based plan that would do away with the antiquated and flawed institution. According to Gore, “I supported the idea of the Electoral College … because the logic is, it knits the country together, it prevents regional conflicts, and it goes back through our history to some legitimate concerns. But since then, I’ve given a lot of thought to it and I’ve seen how these states are just written off and ignored and people are effectively disenfranchised in the presidential race.” Gore’s observation certainly extends to the Idaho experience, though observers should not expect a great clamor for adoption of Electoral College reform proposals any time soon, at least not until the next crisis hits. Perhaps if in 2012 or 2016 a Republican wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College—essentially the reverse of what happened in 2000 when George W. Bush ascended to the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote to Gore—there would be bipartisan support for reform. But in an era characterized by major economic vulnerability, ongoing wars, and deep partisan divides, the likelihood of the kind of sustained, cross-aisle effort needed to amend the Constitution is low. For now, citizens of Idaho and other noncompetitive small states will have to live with being ignored by the politicians fighting to be their president.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • I really appreciate the sentiment at the end of this article regarding the possibility of bipartisan support for electoral college reform. I learned a lot from this. Thank you.

  • ID-2

    Somehow I doubt politicans will change the system that got them into office in the first place. Great article!