Friday, September 28, 2007

California and the Electoral College

An effort to change California’s method of allocating electoral votes has collapsed. Shortly after sponsors began gathering signatures for a ballot measure to adopt a district system, the major players suddenly quit. "The levels of support just weren't there," a fundraiser told the San Francisco Chronicle

California has been trending Democratic since the 1980s. The current winner-take-all system means that the Democratic nominee can usually count on the state’s 55 electoral votes. Under the now-defunct measure, candidates would have gotten one electoral vote for each California congressional district that they carried. (The statewide winner would have an additional two votes.) A Republican could thus win 20 or more electoral votes in California even if the Democrat won the state.

Democrats saw the measure as a threat, citing a Field Poll showing it with 47 percent support. They need not have worried. When a California ballot measure starts with less than a majority, strong opposition can usually beat it. And California Democrats enjoy a big edge in finance, organization, and morale. Republicans, by contrast, face money woes and ideological divisions.

The measure would have been a much stronger money magnet for Democrats than for Republicans. The Democrats were angry about the measure, and anger is a powerful tool for political fundraising.

Had the measure remained alive, Democrats would have focused their fire on Peter Singer, a New York billionaire who had provided much of the seed money. Singer back Rudy Giuliani, so they could have portrayed the measure as a Giuliani plot.

Also, it might have backfired in November. If Giuliani wins the Republican nomination, he might carry the state. But under the district plan, he would still lose dozens of California electoral votes.

Reforms of the electoral process have often disappointed partisan hopes. Democrats thought that the 18-year-old-vote would sweep Nixon out of the White House. Instead, he carried 49 states. They had great expectations for the “motor voter” law in the 1990s, but the GOP kept control of Congress. In the first election after the latest campaign finance law, President Bush beat Senator Kerry.

Ironically, the early demise of the electoral college initiative is probably good news for the GOP.


Wesley Hussey said...

Great analysis.

I don't think there is much of a chance of Giuliani, or any Republican presidential candidate, of winning California in the near future. Even if Arnold ran, if he could, he would find many CA independent voters that originally voted for him still supporting the Democrats for president.

For Republicans, therefore, they had nothing to lose backing this initiative. In the short and medium term, Republicans aren't competitive statewide. If this plan passed and was found constitutionally viable (admittedly both major hurdles), the party automatically wins 15-20 electoral votes every four years and allows them to focus almost all of their financial and political capital away from California and into traditional battleground states. Plus, it gives the party a huge electoral advantage if Democrats don't/can't respond with similar initiatives in Texas and other traditionally big Republicans states.

All that said, I though the plan's chances were very, very small. Democrats would spend unlimited amounts of money to defat the initiative, and as you pointed out, propositions need high approval ratings early in the process to have any chance of passing.

I figured Republicans knew this, and were proposing the plan not really to win, but to distract Democrats both financially and politically during the next election cycle. Every dollar spent by the Republicans might have attracted 2 or 3 Democratic dollars, and the Democrats would focus a great deal of time and resources on putting out this electoral fire, rather than focusing on other races and issues. For that reason alone, I thought the plan was strategically very clever, and was hoping to write about it after it all unfolded.

John J. Pitney, Jr. said...

Thanks for the perceptive comments and kind words. I agree that Republicans were hoping that the initiative would force the Democrats to divert resources. But I don't think that this angle would have worked. In 2008, no state offices are up for election, and there is little threat to any of the state's Democratic seats in the House or the Legislature. Moreover, the State Democratic Committee is rolling in cash. Fighting the electoral college initiative would not have hurt the state Democrats one bit.

Micah Tillman said...

Very informative. Thanks!