How Americans elect their president and why Ohio is so important this year

At the moment it seems very difficult for Mitt Romney to be elected president without winning Ohio, explains Tucker.

The US states broken down into safe Democrat, safe Republican and swing states []

The US presidential campaign is coming to an end and in less than 48 hours, Americans will go to the polls. For the past few days, Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, have done whatever they could to woo voters through a series of statements and ads. Both candidates focused on “swing states” – like Ohio and Florida – which will likely determine their fate in the coming election. Not to forget, Tuesday’s polls come just one week after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the east coast and its effect – if any – on voting remains to be seen. Joshua Tucker takes this all into account, giving insight into how Americans elect their president, what the Electoral College is and how it works, and why everyone keeps talking about Ohio, in a question-and-answer format. 

Q: So on Tuesday, November 6, Americans will elect their next president. I see they only have a single day of voting, so whoever gets the most votes that day wins, right? 

A: Actually, wrong on both counts. In fact, the next American president will be elected on January 6, 2013. On that day, the votes of 538 people – the members of the “Electoral College” – will be counted at a joint session of the United States Congress (the name of the US legislature). Provided Barack Obama or Mitt Romney receives a majority (that is, at least 270) of these votes, he will be re-elected/elected president of the United States. 

Q: Excuse me? Only 538 people get to vote for the president of the United States? Really? 

A: Yes. Only 538 people actually vote directly for the President – and Vice-President – of the United States. When everyone else votes on November 6, they are merely playing a role in determining who these 538 “electors” are. 

Q: OK, so how exactly are these 538 electors chosen? 

A: This is best understood as a two-step process. First, each of the 50 states (plus Washington, DC) in the US is allocated a certain number of electors. Then, each state institutes a process to choose those electors. Currently, 48 out of the 50 states use a “winner take all” method. 

This means that whichever candidate wins the most votes in that state on November 6, 2012, gets to choose (or his/her party gets to choose) all of the electors for that state (the remaining two states use a slightly different method that almost always results in a winner take all result as well). 

In essence, each state runs its only little mini-referendum on November 6, 2012, to determine who is the most popular presidential candidate in that state, and then the state gives all of its “electoral votes” to that candidate. 

Q: What determines how many electors each state gets? 

A: Each state gets allocated a number of electors that is equal to that state’s total number of representatives in the upper house of the US legislature (the Senate) plus the states’ number of representatives in the lower house of the US legislature (the House of Representatives). 

Seats in the lower house are allocated on the basis of population, but every state gets exactly 2 Senators in the upper house. This means that the number of electoral votes is roughly proportional to the population of the state, but that citizens of small states are over-represented in the Electoral College. 

So for example, California (the largest state) gets 55 electors for its slightly more than 37 million people and Wyoming gets only 3 electors for its approximately half a million people. However, that translates into Californians having 1 elector for every 670,000 people or so, while citizens of Wyoming get 1 elector for every 180,000 people. 

Q: This sounds like it is just an odd, complicated formula for counting votes. Is it anything more than that? 

A: Absolutely! First of all, it has a huge effect on the campaign. At the start of any election, both Democratic and Republican strategists need to figure out where to allocate resources (both human and financial). 

It doesn’t make any sense for a campaign to waste resources in a state it is definitely going to lose, but nor does it makes sense to waste resources in a state you are definitely going to win either. 

So what ends up happening is that both campaigns tend to converge on the “swing states” in which both candidates think they have a chance of winning. 

Interestingly, the number of these swing states has been shrinking over time and does not necessarily include the states with the most electoral votes. Indeed, there are four states with more than 20 electors (California, Texas, New York and Florida) and only one of these (Florida) is a swing state.  

The other swing states in the 2012 election have basically been narrowed down to New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and of course, Ohio (Missouri was also originally thought to be a swing state, but no longer looks competitive).

Almost all of the efforts of both campaigns (including all of their advertising dollars) will be spent in these states. So the largest state in the country with the most people and the most electors – California – will witness almost no campaigning for president at all. 

Q: So what’s the deal with Ohio? Why am I constantly hearing about the importance of Ohio? 

A: Ohio is so important because at the moment it seems very difficult for Mitt Romney to be elected president without winning Ohio. This is because President Obama enters the election with a “safe state” advantage: he began the election campaign all but guaranteed to win states that contained 237 electors; Romney, in contrast, starts with only 190 electors guaranteed (including Missouri).  

Ohio has 18 electors, which means if Obama wins it he is already at 255 electors, or only 15 shy of what he needs to be elected president of the United States. 

“In 2000, Al Gore received approximately half a million more votes than George W Bush, but, as history records, Bush became president.”

There are many, many ways he could pick up these electors: He could win Florida. He could win New Hampshire and Virginia. He could win Iowa and Wisconsin, etc. Bottom line, if Romney loses Ohio, he can only afford to lose at best one or two more swing states, and thus the importance of Ohio. 

Q: I can’t help noticing 538 is an even number. What happens if neither candidate gets a majority? 

A: This is where things get really interesting. If Obama wins, for example, his safe states plus Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and Romney wins the rest, both candidates would receive 269 electoral votes. In that case, the lower house of the US parliament would then get to pick the president instead of the Electoral College. 

Although to make things really interesting, the law decrees not that each member of the lower house gets one vote, but rather each state delegation in the lower house gets one vote. In practice, that would mean the 53 representatives from California would get together and decide how to cast California’s one vote and the one representative from Wyoming would simply get to cast Wyoming’s one vote. 

Due to the current distribution of party strength in the lower house of the US legislature, this would almost undoubtedly lead to the election of Mitt Romney in the unlikely event of tie. 

And just to keep things really, really interesting, the upper house of the US legislature would get to select the Vice-President in this case, with each Senator getting one vote. Although we do not know exactly what the Senate will look like in January, our best guess is that this process would lead to the Democratic candidate for Vice-President, Joe Biden, being elected.  

So you would have for the first time in the modern era a sitting president and vice-president from different political parties. 

Q: Any other unlikely events that might happen of which I should be aware? 

A: We don’t have time to go into all of the potential complications that could arise, but one non-trivial potential outcome is worth noting. 

It is completely possible that one candidate could win the vote of the Electoral College while the other candidate gets the most votes on November 6, 2012 (and in fact Hurricane Sandy might have made this outcome more likely). 

This has happened four times in American history, and most recently in the 2000 US presidential elections. In 2000, Al Gore received approximately half a million more votes than George W Bush, but, as history records, Bush became president. 

So on election night, it is certainly interesting to keep an eye on the total vote for each candidate, but if you want to know who is going to be the next US president, the tally to keep an eye on is how many electors (or as the news media will call them, “electoral votes”) each candidate wins. 

Once one candidate reaches 270 electors, you will know the president of the United States for the next four years. 

Joshua A Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage