For Better or Worse: How the Electoral College Affects How Candidates Do Business

Although they have fallen out of favor in the last century, the dowry system was once a commonplace method by which young women were paired off with marriageable men of equal wealth and stature. The man in question was, upon marrying the woman, entitled to a large sum of her father’s money in addition to a wife.  Suitable matches were made when and if a man determined that a woman’s dowry was large enough to be worth the pursuit, and when the woman – or rather, her family – agreed that the suitor was also an appropriate fit.

While American marriages are no longer structured this way, American presidential elections are.

Instead of dowries, states are endowed with electoral votes. Politically eligible states are those that do not consistently vote with one party or another. And like a debutante in old-fashioned society, states must possess a substantial dowry and be eligible (that is, not already committed to a party) to merit attention from suitors--in this case, presidential candidates. From the candidate's point of view, states fall into one of three categories: those that are not worth the effort (because they are too poor in electoral votes or because they are already committed to a party), those that may be competitive if the political climate favors the candidate, making the people of that state more receptive to the candidate's message, and those states that are always hotly contended in political campaigns because of their powerhouse electoral weight and undecided voters.

Rather than a lump sum of money, each state is endowed with its own electoral votes. In exchange for a state’s support, these votes are awarded to the winning candidate. And just as men generally courted women with larger dowries, so candidates tend to court states heavy with electoral votes. Although the New York Times calls New Hampshire a toss-up state, for example, it would be foolish for either candidate to spend months trying to persuade independent New Hampshirites when his reward would be a paltry four electoral votes. New Hampshire may be single, but she is poor – and so candidates will not commit to her the way that they’ll commit to electorally wealthy states like Florida.

There are, of course, more nuances to the practice of electoral college politics than pure numbers – after all, it is not likely that Romney will expend much political capital in New York and California, nor that Obama will put up a fight for Texas. Both candidates have already ceded defeat in many of the fifty states, for the simple reason that such states side so consistently with one party that any major attempt by the other to win those votes would be futile. It is as if certain states – among them Illinois, California, and much of the Northeast –are already promised to the Democrats, and so for the Republicans to pursue them would be a waste of time. Similarly, the Republican stronghold in the Deep South – Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia, among others – makes an Obama victory in that region nearly impossible. The electoral dowries of these far-leaning states are not available for the taking in the same way that more moderate states’ would be – no one proposes to a married woman.

However, the numbers game of the Electoral College can incentivize battles in states that do tend to “lean” in one direction or another – think moderate conservative states like Missouri (10 electoral votes) or North Carolina (15), and moderately liberal ones like Michigan (16). Ultimately, whether these nearly-toss-up states become a bigger part of the campaign dialogue is dependent on the economy. An improved economy could be Obama’s biggest asset when courting the big states he needs, giving him incentive to fight for slightly right-leaning states like Missouri; a worsening economy, conversely, would incentivize a Republican battle in Michigan.

With so many electoral votes apparently determined by consistent precedent in favor of one party or the other, the pool of states whose votes are legitimately up for grabs is narrowed dramatically. As a result, Romney and Obama will spend most of their time in the coming months pursuing a shrinking number of so-called “swing states.” These swing states must not only be eligible (that is, politically available for the taking by either party) but they must also possess enough electoral votes to be attractive places to campaign. In the 2012 election season, the states with that magic combination are perennial bellwethers Ohio (18) and Florida (29), as well as Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), and Wisconsin (10). The next five months will, inevitably, pit Obama against Romney as competing suitors for their hearts, minds, and electoral votes. Such is the landscape of the 2012 battleground, and these swing states will likely determine our next president, for better or worse.