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The Virginia GOP's Self-Defeating Power Grab

Many Democrats were irate at the news that Virginia Republicans are considering changing their state's election laws so that future Electoral College votes will be apportioned by congressional district, rather than on the basis of a winner-takes-all popular vote. They had good reasons to call it a cynical ploy to discriminate against the state's minorities and a measure of revenge for Democrats' victories in the state in the last two presidential cycles. But the GOP's effort in Virginia, if it's passed, is more cynical than effective: Virginia is not one of the states where Republicans can pursue this kind of electoral policy and reap big gains.

Many analysts have correctly observed that the GOP would hold a substantial advantage if every state allocated their electoral votes by congressional district. Such a system would have elected Mr. Romney to the presidency, even though he lost the national popular vote by nearly 4 points. But either party could potentially benefit from a particular state changing to a congressional district system. Which party gains is mainly determined by the partisanship of the state: Republicans benefit from splitting up the electoral votes of blue states (since they win new electoral votes that they wouldn’t have otherwise won), while Democrats gain from splitting up the electoral votes of red states.

Indeed, there's a clear strategic (if cynical) logic behind the GOP's effort to change the rules in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those are all states that voted to the left of the popular vote last November, supported Democratic candidates in the last six presidential elections, and are part of the Democratic party’s easiest route to 270 electoral votes. Assigning the electoral votes of those blue states by congressional district rather than winner-takes-all would clearly benefit Republicans, as Democrats would need to make up for those lost electoral votes by winning more red states.  

Although Virginia voted twice for President Obama and voted slightly left of the national popular vote, Virginia is a right-of-center state from the perspective of the Electoral College, making it part of Mr. Romney’s easiest route to victory (the 206 electoral votes from the red Romney states, plus Florida (O+.9), Ohio (O+3), Virginia (O+3.9), and either Pennsylvania or Colorado (O+5.4)). Diluting Virginia's electoral strength, as the Republican proposal would do, could make the GOP's path to the White House harder, not easier; given that the GOP is more dependent on Virginia than Democrats, they should want the state to be winner-takes-all.

Splitting Virginia's electoral votes could actually force Republicans to win additional “blue” states. If Republicans win all of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes under the current system (together with Florida and Ohio), they’re just one state, like Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, away. Under the congressional district proposal, Republicans would probably only win 9 of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes if they won the state. As a result of losing those 4 electoral votes, Republicans might need to win two of Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire instead of just one, at least if the GOP also lost Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wisconsin. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t upside for Republicans. Virginia is so close to the national center that the Republicans could be more concerned about surviving a loss in Virginia than consolidating their route to victory through Virginia. Indeed, the congressional district plan makes their path to victory without Virginia easier, since they would probably still win 7 electoral votes (or even 9 if they follow through with a provision to allocate the at-large electors to the winner of the most congressional districts). In the winner-take-all system, a Virginia loss might have required the GOP to win Colorado and Wisconsin, or Colorado plus Iowa and New Hampshire. With seven or nine electoral votes from Virginia’s Republican-leaning congressional districts, a combination of Iowa and New Hampshire would be sufficient. Alternately, just one of Colorado or Wisconsin could produce a Republican victory. 

It is hard to say whether the benefit of more pathways to victory without Virginia outweighs the cost of increasing the number of electoral votes needed in addition to Virginia. As a simple question of electoral math, one could conclude that the GOP slightly gains from reallocating Virginia’s electoral votes, since the GOP seems to lose fewer pathways to victory with Virginia than it gains without the Commonwealth. But electoral logic complicates the electoral math: if the GOP's chances in Virginia are so dim, they’re probably not winning any bluer states, and therefore they’re probably not winning the next election. A Democratic victory in Virginia would entail a strong performance in northern Virginia, and a strong enough Democratic performance in the well-educated D.C. suburbs to win the state would probably translate to Democratic wins in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado, where Republicans probably can’t win without meaningful gains in the Philadelphia, Boston, and Denver suburbs and exurbs. 

That’s especially true in 2016, since the 1.5 point gap between Obama’s performance in Virginia and the tipping point states like Colorado and Pennsylvania could easily grow without Obama on the ballot. Of all the critical states, Virginia is probably the place where Democrats benefited most from historic black turnout, since African Americans represented a larger share of the electorate (20 percent) in Virginia than any other Bush 04-Obama 12 state. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that Virginia would have been a dead heat if black turnout fell to ’04 levels and black support for Obama declined to a point half way between ’04 and ’12. In contrast, declining black turnout would only have a negligible effect on the next Democratic candidate’s chances in states like Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire. Declining black turnout and support for the next Democrat would have a meaningful but smaller impact in Pennsylvania, where Democrats are already better positioned than Virginia.

Republicans don’t “need” to win Virginia to win the presidency, but it is far easier for Republicans to win with it than without it, so its hard to understand why they’re risking national embarrassment to negligibly improve their chances (at best). To win, Republicans will still need a state like Pennsylvania or Colorado, and that's both tougher than carrying Virginia, and hard to accomplish without carrying Virginia. On its own, the Virginia plan is cynical, but hardly a very effective power grab. In fact, the GOP would be better off with switching to a popular vote system than enacting the Virginia plan alone; the GOP would only need to gain 3.9 points to win the national popular vote, not 5.4 points in Colorado or Pennsylvania.

That could change, however, if the relatively ineffective Virginia plan was joined by Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If all four states allocated their electoral votes by congressional district and assigned their eight at-large delegates to the winner of the statewide popular vote, Republicans would have won an additional 33 electoral votes, giving them a total of 239. If Republicans then flipped Florida, the closest state last November, the home of several Republican frontrunners, and a state where Republicans aren't interested in rejiggering the state's electoral votes, they would hold 268 electoral votes—just one shy of the number needed for Republicans to win the presidency, so long as they preserve their control of the House of Representatives.  Here, the distinctive element of the Virginia plan can put Republicans over the top: if Virginia’s two at-large electors are given to the candidate that wins the most congressional districts, then the Republican would win 270 electoral votes. Alternately, the Republican could flip any Obama district, perhaps in Florida, where Republicans will need to make up a point statewide.

On its own, the Virginia plan won't do much to reshape the electoral map. But the combination of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could be the ticket for Mr. Rubio or Mr. Bush to win the presidency while losing Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and every battleground state other than Florida and North Carolina.