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Yes, Nate Silver, Democrats Got Lucky in the Electoral College

A redrawn U.S. map starts a debate over how the party got its edge

Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski

Last week, I wrote about a fun "art project" that redrew the country into 50 equally populated states. In that scenario, Romney would have narrowly won the presidency, and I concluded that the map was a "reminder that the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College is a product of luck—only a few quick changes would give the GOP an edge." I didn't elaborate much on that last line, and I don't have much of an excuse; it's not like I have much else to do in odd-numbered years than muse about fake electoral maps. Since the New York Times' Nate Silver is apparently in a similar position, he objected to my use of the term "luck":

I would also take objection to Mr. Cohn's notion that the allocation of the United States into its 50 states should be thought of as a matter of "luck" — as though it reflects one draw from a randomly-generated pool of alternatives. Certainly, the boundaries of the states are quirky in some ways: Vermont, for instance, could easily have wound up as part of New York or New Hampshire.

But as books like "How The States Got Their Shapes" make clear, many other states have boundaries that were the result of careful deliberation by Congress. In particular, there was an effort to grant them roughly equal amounts of geographic territory, and to allow them to share access to important natural resources like the Great Lakes. (Most of the exceptions are in states that were brought into the nation whole-hog, like California and Texas, or the 13 original colonies.)

As an owner of How The States Got Their Shapes (nerd alert), I can't disagree with Silver's basic point that the states were drawn according to political and economic considerations. Nonetheless, the Democratic edge in the Electoral College is so tenuous that it probably is a product of luck, even if one accepts a somewhat deterministic explanation of state boundaries. The Democratic edge in the Electoral College hangs on by three threads: The 23 states where President Obama performed better than the national popular vote hold just 272 electoral votes, and if those states held three fewer electoral votes, the Democratic advantage would vanish. Instead, Democrats would either need to retake the House or carry the state of Virginia, which voted exactly in-line with the popular vote.

There is a long list of contingencies that could have shifted three electoral votes from the 23 blue states to the 27 red states, whether by actually flipping the outcome of a state or by reducing the size of a blue state and its weight in the Electoral College. Start with the state boundaries that Silver suggests are fair game, like California, Texas, Florida, and the 13 original colonies. Silver characterizes these states as "exceptions," but these 16 states hold a majority of the country's population and electoral votes, and their arbitrary boundaries are more than sufficient to cover three electoral votes.

For instance, Silver suggest that Vermont could have "easily" wound up as part of New York or New Hampshire. But that's not a minor concession. Because each state gets two electoral votes for each of their senators, merging Vermont into New Hampshire or New York would deny Democrats two electoral votes. Given that Democrats have an edge of a net-six electoral votes, that's quite significant. A few more mergers—say Maine and Massachusetts (which actually was a single state until 1820) and Delaware and Maryland (which was almost one colony, and therefore one state)—would deduct six electoral votes from the blue states, resulting in a 266-266 tie and the end to the Democrats' electoral edge.

Modest border changes short of merging New England states together could easily deny the blue states three electoral votes. Had Congress crafted the eastern border of California, it might have run along the Sierra Nevada, giving much of the southeastern part of the state to Arizona. What if the eastern borders of Oregon and Washington were the Cascade Mountains, giving the three congressional districts (and electoral votes) of eastern Oregon and Washington to Idaho? On the flip side, Texas' terms of annexation allow the Lone Star state to divide into five smaller states, which could add 8 electoral votes to the red states and erase the Democrats' Electoral College edge.  

Not only could slight border changes deny the "blue states" a few electoral votes, it's not apparent that Democrats would have an edge in the original colony of Pennsylvania—a state with the power to singlehandedly deny Democrats an edge in the Electoral College. The original border between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, for instance, once ran along 40 degrees north—right through the middle of what would eventually become Philadelphia. Similarly, the Board of Trade and Plantations ruled in 1685 that Delaware extended to 40 degrees north, which would have given the Maryland half of Philadelphia to the First State. Similarly, the northern border of Pennsylvania extended further north, which would have added some number of Republican-leaning rural counties. Since 40 degrees north splits so many counties, I can't calculate whether it would cost Democrats the state, but it would probably move Pennsylvania in line with the popular vote.

In addition to an edge in the tipping point states compared to the popular vote, Democrats seem to have more paths to victory, since they've won states like Ohio and Virginia in recent elections. But the original state of Virginia would have voted for Romney, since West Virginia was part of Virginia until the Civil War. Even the carefully crafted states of the Midwest could have been drawn in a slightly different manner. Michigan, for instance, wanted Toledo and lost to Ohio. Nearly two hundred years later, Lucas County was worth half of Obama's margin of victory in Ohio.

Of course, luck could have worked the other way. The state of Alabama attempted to annex the Florida Panhandle a dozen times with a sound economic justification—the Florida Panhandle was linked to the country through Alabama and was completely disconnected from the Peninsula. If Alabama had succeeded, Florida votes for Al Gore in 2000 and Obama's margin of victory increases substantially, although the exact amount depends on how much of the Panhandle goes to Alabama. But the point is that there's nothing about the distribution of Democratic voters that assured them of an advantage in an Electoral College system. The Democratic edge in the Electoral College is so tenuous that even slight boundary changes could either move states across the national mean or deny them the weight necessary to get the blue states to 272 electoral votes. That's what I mean when I say it's a matter of luck.