Why most Americans' votes likely won't sway the U.S. election
TORONTO -- With one week to go before the U.S. election, voters in a handful of states are being inundated with flyers, big-budget TV commercials and last-minute visits from candidates while the majority of American voters watch from the sidelines.
Thirteen states are considered battlegrounds this year, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which uses the latest polling to determine the state of the race. Together, those battleground states account for 132 million people, or 40 per cent of the total American population.
Naturally, both campaigns have focused heavily on those states. Ninety-eight per cent of all campaign events by U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden took place in 12 of the most closely-fought states in the first eight weeks of the fall election cycle, according to data collected by FairVote. In 35 states and the District of Columbia, neither campaign visited a single time.
This year’s battleground states include perennial swing states, such as Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire, along with traditionally historically Republican states such as Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona. Rust belt states that Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are also considered essential for both parties, with Pennsylvania representing one of the most fought-after battlegrounds.
The intense focus on battleground states is indicative of the importance of winning the electoral college, a centuries-old voting system that requires a candidate to win 270 electoral votes to capture the White House. States award the entirety of their electoral votes to the candidate who earns the most votes.
- Follow every twist and turn between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump on our Facebook group
WINNER TAKES ALL
But the all-or-nothing approach to voting has been criticized as an outdated system that gives a small group of voters more decision-making power than the majority. In two of the past five elections, the electoral college has given the White House to the loser of the popular vote. Both times, Republicans won.
In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 votes nationwide but ended up losing the electoral college after George W. Bush took Florida by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but lost the electoral college to Trump. Trump’s win has been attributed to his narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which he carried by a margin of 77,000 votes.
Some Democrats have called for the electoral college to be abolished altogether and replaced with a popular vote, including former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who called the system “undemocratic,” and Elizabeth Warren. Vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris has said she’d be open to abolishing the electoral college, but did not make it a cornerstone of her failed bid for the Democratic candidacy.
A handful of states have already taken matters into their own hands. Sixteen jurisdictions have joined a compact agreeing to circumvent the electoral college by awarding their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the statewide winner.
This change, if enacted, would represent a radical restructuring of the way American elections are held. So far, only Democratic-led state legislatures have passed such bills, accounting for 196 electoral votes, 74 short of what’s required to win the White House. The change won’t take effect until those states reach the all-important 270 threshold.
ELECTORAL COLLEGE WAS NEARLY ABOLISHED
Decades before the electoral college became a partisan issue, there was a bipartisan movement to scrap the system in favour of a national popular vote.
In 1966, Indiana Senator Birch Bayh launched an effort to eliminate the electoral college by amending the U.S. constitution. Bayh argued that Americans don’t vote for the president under the current system and never would unless changes were made.
The idea earned support in national polls and from top Republicans. Republican president Richard Nixon agreed that the popular vote should replace the electoral college.
In 1969, the U.S. House passed a motion to abolish the electoral college with two-thirds support. But the amendment ultimately died on the Senate floor after three Southern senators filibustered the motion, which prevented any debate on the subject.
FLORIDA, THE SWINGIEST OF SWING STATES
Seven days before the election, Biden is leading nationwide by a wide 9 points, according to polling averages calculated by FiveThirtyEight. But state polls show a much tighter race, particularly in Texas, which Trump won by 9 points but is now leading by 3.2 points, according to Real Clear Politics. In Pennsylvania, Biden leads the polls by an average 4.5 points.
One of the tightest races is in Florida, which has a longstanding reputation as a bellwether for who wins the White House. Florida has voted for the winner in the past six elections. Going back to 1972, Florida voted for the winner in 11 of 12 elections.
As of Tuesday morning, polls show Biden leading in Florida by a thin 1.2 -point margin. That’s well within the range of normal polling error.
The reason Florida is so tricky to predict has everything to do with the state’s diverse demographics, according to Kevin Wagner, a political science professor from Florida Atlantic University.
“Ultimately it is the largest swing state,” Wagner told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday. “It is the one that is most determinative of who is going to win the election.”
Wagner says Florida can be seen as three distinct voting regions. Southern Florida leans left and votes similar to northeastern states, while northern Florida leans to the right. Central Florida poses a wildcard due to its large number of new immigrants.
“There you can study some change and get a state of where the state is really going,” Wagner said.
If Trump manages to hold on to Florida, he’ll still need to carry Rust Belt states that voted for him in 2016 in order to win re-election. But if Trump loses Florida, Wagner says, Trump’s political career is essentially over.
“It pretty much closes it,” said Wagner, who suggested that a win in Florida means Biden will likely carry other highly competitive Sun Belt states, such as North Carolina, where Biden is currently leading by 1.2 points, and Georgia, where Trump is ahead by less than half a point.
Turnout could also play a major role in who wins. Higher voter turnout traditionally favours Democrats, and early voters have been turning out in record levels, surpassing the 2016 early voting numbers. 64.7 million Americans have voted already, accounting for 47 per cent of the total turnout in 2016. California, Texas and Florida have seen the highest turnout so far.
“It is really a turnout election,” Wagner said.
However, some political observers caution against making assumptions based on early voting because they don’t offer any accurate predictions of election day turnout. As well, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic adds an extra layer of uncertainty.