How would Americans vote if there were a popular vote?
There's been a recent surge in talk about how to switch US presidential elections to be based on a popular vote rather than the electoral college. As I have pointed out before, there is no such thing as the US popular vote even though the press likes to add the real popular votes in the swing states to the nobody-cares surveys of the safe states and call it "the popular vote."
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact got excited by adding Connecticut's 7 votes this year, but I think that's actually a bad sign for the compact, not a positive one. The compact hopes to get 270 electoral votes so it can be activated, but the 12 states which have joined it are all "blue states" which reliably support the Democratic Party. Adding another bright blue state just makes it look more and more partisan, and that makes it more and more difficult to get a "red" state to consider joining it, and it can never get to 270 with just blue states. (On the other hand, the compact has passed in one house in some red states, notably Arkansas and Oklahoma, so it is not entirely without hope, but one house is just a beginning.)
Ten years ago I pointed out a better way to do a compact needs just 3 or 4 safe states -- if they are the right states, a bipartisan collection representing about 50 blue votes and 50 red votes.
But if we did either of those things, the unanswered question is "what would the popular vote look like, if there were a real popular vote, and every voter's vote counted the same?" It might be quite different from what we see today in the safe states.
In order to figure out what it would be, we would need to use polling and statistical methods to figure out how all the factors in safe states alter the results. Or we might be better off in just doing polling. Most polls try to survey "likely voters" but whether somebody is a likely voter or not depends on whether they think their vote will count for anything.
Let's consider the factors we need to undo:
As noted, when voters don't think their vote counts, they are less likely to vote, and vote for different reasons. Of course, the votes in down-ticket races still count, but sadly turnout in Presidential elections is 50% higher than in off-year elections. A large fraction of voters really only turn out when they can vote for President.
Many still turn out even when they don't feel their vote counts, but not as many. My analysis of 2016 suggests the average turnout was 3% less (out of the total) in safe states than swing states. It's actually impressive that so many do come out to vote. We need to understand why they are voting, since they know their vote will not change anything. In essence, all voting in a safe state does is add your number to the total printed in the paper for your state, and in the sum the newspapers call the popular vote.
That's hard to read. In general, polls which measure how much you care about registering your view when the poll is publish are considered highly unscientific and invalid. Voters are what is called self-selected. Whether you vote is a measure of how much you care about the survey as much as it measures your opinion. In a scientific survey, subjects must be selected through a carefully designed process that avoids bias of this sort.
On the other hand, these voters do care, since voting takes some work (compared to filling out a survey) so we might be able to find correlations between how they vote and how they would vote if it actually counted.
Inverse lower turnout
Perversely, we might see voter engagement and turnout decrease in some of the swing states. Voters in those states see tremendous attention, money and "bribes" from candidates. Small swing states that used to get candidate visits and heavy campaigning might find themselves deserted, with some GOTV effort, but much less. Candidates would be very unlikely to personally visit low population areas and motivate voters.
Likewise, more people, nationwide, might feel "there is no chance my vote will change the result." While the chance of that is always low, in a very close swing state, voters can get very motivated because that chance is more real. With a popular vote, it would be the same, very low, probability everywhere in the nation.
Third party votes
In safe states, voters can vote for third parties without any risk of altering the national result in a way they don't like. In theory, this should allow third parties to more easily get support, which can demonstrate their growing strength. In fact, this is the only thing third parties get from elections, since they won't win. While there are still many 3rd party voters in swing states, those voters get told they are "spoiling" or "throwing away" their vote. It will become very difficult for a third party to rise from minor status -- though it already is very difficult. The use of a multi-candidate ballot, such as Approval voting or ranked choices is the best answer for this.
Perhaps the biggest difference is money. Presidential campaigns raise about $6B -- and spend almost all of it in the swing states. If you live in those states you are bombarded with ads and get out the vote efforts. A lot. In the safe states, it's crickets. You get exposed to a few national ads, and today, you will see ads on sites like YouTube and your social network feed, but nothing like what you see in a swing state.
Many people think that money has a serious and dangerous effect on politics. I've seen many people decry the Citizens United decision, which allowed corporate super-PACs to spend heavily in elections, and declare it the greatest threat to democracy out there. They're even ready to weaken the 1st amendment to stop it! But if so, none of that money is spent in the safe states. How can we calculate how they would vote if they got exposed to all that money. Well, not all of it, because now it would not be concentrated in a small number of states, so everybody would see the ads, but see fewer of them.
Related to money is the non-monetary part of a campaign. Visits. Calls. Door-knocking, and most importantly "get out the vote" efforts which focus on getting weak supporters motivated to show up. Nobody bothers to do this in the safe states, and it may account for some large fraction of that lower turnout.
One portion of campaigning does take place in the safe states -- fundraising -- to get money to spend in the swing states. But to fundraise, candidates do visit and sometimes do rallies, but mostly they do fundraising dinners for bigger donors.
With both of these, we might imagine very little connection between safe state voting and voting in a real election. Today, thanks to the internet, a lot more messages do go out nationally, and of course there are the traditional national messages that come from national media and things like debates. Voters in safe states see a much less hyped campaign, and probably vote more on a reasoned look at the issues, because nobody is spending billions to sway them. The more a voter cares, the more they are likely to see, because they have to go seek out election information rather than have it thrust at them.
There is less motive for parties to do various political tricks, including voter suppression, in safe states. Especially the ultra-safe states like California, where even the down-ticket races are largely decided in advance. Why take the serious effort of voter suppression if it's not likely to win you much?
Where is the real data?
In order to figure out the real values, there are some tricks we might do
- Expensively, perform surveys just before the election in both safe and swing states with different methodologies, and compare the survey results to actual results. In particular, in safe states, ask voters about what they would do if they lived in a swing state, and try to find how much that differs from their safe state intentions. (Honesty may be hard to measure here.)
- Study states which switched between safe and swing, possibly on a county by county basis to control for other changes, and look for patterns.
- Look in safe states for regions with highly contentious house and local races which bring in more serious voters and have a resulting large boost in turnout (ideally 50% boost.) Their vote for President probably mirrors what they cast in these polls.
- Look at voters who believe their vote counts, even though the campaigns have judged the state safe and are not acting in the states.
- Get a group of voters in a safe state and have them consume all media from swing states, loaded with Presidential advertising. Observe their difference from a control group. Possibly use people who moved from swing states who won't mind watching those TV stations and reading those newspapers and other media. Take them to rallies via video feed.
- Calculate effect of voter suppression in swing states, and apply it to surveys in safe states, or to actual votes from polling stations with similar demographics.
Some people have the intuition that all these effects will affect the two parties equally, and thus a real popular vote would be similar to past numbers. ie. that we can still look at California's numbers, even though no campaigning was done, because neither party spent any resources there. We don't have enough information to say that yet, but perhaps we could test that hypothesis in some fashion. Money is distributed far from equally. One side usually raises more money than the other, and they decide to spend it differently. The highly local ad becomes less effective (and doesn't scale to the whole country) so more national advertising would be done.
One difference might be that physical campaigning (meetings, GOTV) is more expensive in low density areas and scales better in cities. Democrats have most of their base in cities. If the amount you can spend per voter drops, this might alter things.
But overall it is very difficult to come up with an accurate methodology. It's hard to get true answers from voters about a hypothetical. After all, every voter answering a poll thinks their answer matters, so they are not going to admit (even to themselves) that their voting behaviour would change if they knew their vote counted.