Democracy draws its strength from the ability of people to choose their leaders. The U.S. governance system as established during the laying of foundations of the nation’s governance stands on this principle. The system therefore allows equal say of states on national issues regardless of the states’ demography. In the context of the American electoral process, the Electoral College ensures the implementation of the federal principle (Glenn 4). The institution of the Electoral College is a unique feature of the American elections, with a far-reaching effects on the campaigning strategy and tactics of presidential candidates.
The presidential election system instituted by the Founders of the United States features a statewide winner-take-all scheme that currently excludes only Maine and Nebraska (Ginsberg et al. 226; Grofman and Feld 1). Through the Electoral College system, 51 state elections are responsible for the election of the president, and not the nationally consolidated electoral vote (Glenn 4). Through the Constitutional, states select electors through the different state legislatures. The choice of candidate in the presidential elections, that is, whether they will vote for the candidate with the highest number of votes in the state is also left to the discretion of the electors (Brown 419).
The function of the Electoral College as provided for in the constitution is such that each of the 51 states is allotted votes commensurate to the size of its congressional delegation, totaling 538 votes for the 50 states and the District of Columbia (Ginsberg et al. 226). Through this system, the presidential candidate with the highest number of Electoral College votes wins the presidency, and not the one with the highest number of popular votes (Ginsberg et al. 226). Such was the case in the 2016 elections, when despite winning the popular vote with 65,844,956 ballots cast in her favor against Trump’s 62,979,879, Hilary Clinton did not make it to the White House. Trump’s 304 Electoral College votes allowed him to win the presidency against Clinton’s 232 electoral votes.
The existence of the Electoral College follows its adoption in the 1787 Constitutional Convention (Glenn 6). Several factors contributed to the institution of the Electoral College including the anonymity of candidates from other states, the possibility of a presidential winner based on a state with a large population, and the awareness of the significant problems that would plague a system revolving exclusively about the popular vote (Aldrich, Reifler and Munger 544). Addressing the concerns raised dictated the creation of a nationally distributed popular majority. The distributed popular majority signaled a shift from concentrated popular majority, but instead opened way for popular elections away from the sectional conflicts that would arise with a national popular vote. Most important, the Electoral College would alleviate the concerns raised by small states over their ability to get justice in a competitive national system, given the possibility of their being swallowed by the large population of bigger states (Glenn 6).
The Electoral College and the winner-take-all system that comes with it exert a profound influence on presidential campaigning and campaign tactics among presidential candidates. Tellingly, the distribution of campaign resources takes always into account their potential impact on the Electoral College. As a result, candidates concentrate their appearances, TV and radio advertising in states they are likely to win, while giving little attention to states more likely to vote for their opponents. The winner-take-all system, therefore, usually pushes candidates to use much of their resources in “swing states,” where there are prospects for winning, given the futility of putting effort in states they are far ahead or far behind their opponents (Mayer et al. 103). The 2000 elections put the situation into perspective; Massachusetts was considered safe ground for Al Gore and thus residents did not see TV ads for the presidential candidates, while Illinois, a “battle ground” state, had its residents inundated by campaign ads from the Democrat and Republican candidates (Mayer et al. 103).
The effect of the Electoral College on campaign and campaign tactics in the distribution of time and resources is also evident in the Richard Nixon and John Kennedy campaigns from the 1960 elections. Specifically, the two presidential candidates spent 74 percent of their resources and time in 24 doubtful states, and 88 percent of their campaigning in the same 24 states (Mayer et al. 103). The winner-take-all system, therefore, pushes for more ads, money, and public appearances from the presidential candidates, especially for larger states. Under the Electoral College system, larger swing states become major battlegrounds for presidential candidates, who devout more in campaign time, resources, and ads in a bid to win the electoral vote (Mayer et al. 103).
The Electoral College, additionally, is the foundation on which the current two-party system of the nation’s elections lies. With the representation of members of the Electoral College determined by the legislative number of each state, all the electoral votes have party backing (Mayer et al. 105). It is for this reason that independent candidates have not made it to the presidency, given the party backing required for presidential candidates. Through the Electoral College and the existence of a two-party system, presidential candidates use the parties as vehicles for campaigning while the parties provide the necessary resources (Mayer et al. 105).
Additionally, the presence of the Electoral College encourages coalition building among different political groups under a presidential candidate from the two parties. The presence of the two dominant parties (Democratic and GOP) does not necessarily mean that there are no smaller parties. With the realization of their inability to clinch the presidency, most supporters of the smaller parties and independent candidates opt for a candidate from one of the major two (Mayer et al. 105). Ideally, the candidates of the two majority parties already promise to serve the interests of the supporters of independent candidates, thus winning them over in during the campaigns.
The Electoral College, as part of the electoral process, has its roots in the constitutional convention that laid the foundation for the Union. The process of coming up with the Electoral College was tiresome and considerate of many factors, which direct vote may not necessarily address. Factors such as equal representation and the prevention of undue influence of the larger states caused by their sheer numbers are issues that direct popular vote may not be able to address adequately. Aside from ensuring equal representation, the Electoral College greatly affects the the campaigning strategy and and tactics of presidential candidates, through the allocation of resources and the building of coalitions. It remains the only viable way to ensure that all states are given a fair chance of deciding the outcome of the American presidential elections.
Aldrich, John, Jason Reifler, and Michael C. Munger. “Sophisticated and Myopic? Citizen Preferences for Electoral College Reform.” Public Choice, vol.158, no. 3-4 (2014), pp. 541-58.
Brown, Lara M. “How Close is Too Close?: The 2012 Election in the Electoral College.” Society, vol. 49, no. 5 (2012), pp. 418-22.
Ginsberg, Benjamin et al. We the People: An Introduction to American Politics 11th ed. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Glenn, Gary. “The Electoral College and the Development of American Democracy.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 32, no.1, (2003), pp. 4-8
Grofman, Bernard, and Scott L. Feld. “Thinking about the Political Impacts of the Electoral College.” Public Choice, vol. 123, no. 1-2, (2005), pp.1-18.
Mayer, William, G. “The Electoral College and Campaign Strategy.” in Schumaker, Paul, D. and Burdett, A, L. Choosing A President: The Electoral College and Beyond. Seven Bridges Press.