Government & Politics

Sick of Presidential Campaign Ads? Blame the Electoral College

Paradoxically, letting the people vote for president would cut advertising in half.

April 18, 2016

| by Lee Simmons

People watching the Electoral College Map

Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Ever since the “college of electors” was dreamt up at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (at the last second, by a Committee on Postponed Matters), Americans have been debating its merits. Over the years, Congress has entertained more than 700 proposals to reform or abolish it. Opinion polls show that a majority of citizens dislike it. Yet this oddly undemocratic institution lives on.

The common criticism of the Electoral College is that it can potentially crown the “wrong” candidate — a president without a mandate. It’s happened four times in our history, most recently in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a slim margin but won the electoral vote.

But a deeper issue is how it distorts the election itself. Because all but two states assign all their electors to a single candidate, both parties largely ignore states they’re fairly sure of winning or losing. And nowadays that’s about 80% of the country. Instead, all the action happens in a handful of swing states like Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. It’s no surprise, then, that nearly every candidate supports otherwise indefensible subsidies on corn ethanol — a litmus test for Iowans.

Before you gripe about your vote not counting, however, consider what they endure to earn that clout. Data from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that in the 2012 general election, 60% of all campaign ads were rained down upon just seven states, with less than 15% of the U.S. population. While San Franciscans saw fewer than 50 ads, residents of Denver were subjected to over 40,000.

So what would happen if we dumped the Electoral College? To find out, Stanford marketing professor Wes Hartmann and Brett Gordon of Northwestern simulated the elections of 2000 and 2004 to see how they would have played out under a direct vote. The researchers focused on ad spending, which offers a handy, quantifiable indicator of where campaigns are trying to compete.

Their findings, reported in a new paper, may surprise you. As you’d expect, the concentration of advertising in swing states goes away, and ad spending rises everywhere else. What you might not have predicted is that, in a typical election, total advertising nationwide is much lower.

An Alternate Election

To rerun the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections under a direct vote, the researchers used what’s called a structural econometrics model. “This works really well when you want to see what would happen in a scenario you can’t observe,” Hartmann says. “We used data from the real elections to find out what drives behavior — for instance, how much does advertising influence voters? — then we combined it with economic theory on incentives to extrapolate to this other world.”

Under our current system, some votes count more than others. “Because of the winner-take-all rule, a thousand extra votes in a battleground state like Florida can swing the whole election — as we saw in 2000,” Hartmann explains. “So candidates will spend huge sums on advertising to ‘buy’ those votes.”

Under the Electoral College, a thousand votes in Florida can swing the whole election. So candidates will spend huge sums to ‘buy’ those votes.
Wes Hartmann

By contrast, a marginal vote in California — yours, say — is literally worth nothing to campaign strategists. “You might say, ‘Great, I don’t have to see any political ads.’ But if they’re focusing their ad dollars, it’s a good bet they’re also focusing their message. Your preferences, maybe as a more socially liberal Republican, aren’t going to be represented.”

Moving to a direct vote changes the math. For starters, the whole notion of battleground states vanishes. Every vote counts equally in the national tally, and that’s reflected in the simulations: Ad spending declines in the former swing states and rises in the 40 or so others.

Since the competition gets spread across the entire country, you might expect an overall jump in advertising. But at least in the simulation for 2004, that’s not what happens. Without the leverage of the Electoral College, no increment of votes in any one market has the same power to tip the election, so those marginal votes aren’t worth as much. The result: Ad spending falls by an astonishing 54%.

That’s not always the case. In a really tight election like 2000, with a razor-thin margin separating victory from defeat, every last vote matters, and the model shows ad spending rising by 13% under direct voting. But that’s an outlier, Hartmann says. The 2004 election was still very close by historical standards, so the large decline witnessed in that year would more likely be the norm.

A Whole New Ball Game

Does that mean we’d all see the same number of ads? Actually, no. Although all votes carry equal weight in a direct election, the cost of acquiring them varies. “Affluent markets like New York are more attractive to corporate advertisers, so competition for airtime drives the price up — the cost per ad impression is higher,” Hartmann explains. “But politically, those ad impressions are no more valuable than ones in Omaha.”

As a result, the model shows that presidential campaigns will focus somewhat more on areas with lower incomes — which, as it happens, tend to lean further to the right. In other words, every vote is equal, but some are cheaper than others. We can abolish the Electoral College, but we can’t revoke the laws of supply and demand.

That also points to one of the most interesting insights of the study: One can’t just look at historic election results and assume that the winner under a direct vote would have been the candidate who won the popular vote in that year. Changing the election mechanism “changes candidates’ strategic priorities and how they compete,” Hartmann says. “It’s a whole new ball game.”

In Hartmann and Gordon’s simulation, voter turnout in 2000 rises by 2 million. Gore would still win the popular vote — though by an even narrower, finger-biting margin — and would become the 43rd president in place of Bush. With the entire country in play, however, one might wonder whether the parties would even have advanced the same candidates.

What does seem likely is that under a system of direct voting for president, candidates would feel less compelled to tailor their appeal to the parochial interests of a small minority. And in most election years, there would actually be much less advertising.

Half as much rage and vitriol on the airwaves? Now that’s a platform we can all get behind.

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