Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The basics of a US election

The American political system is structured somewhat oddly. As you probably know, it boils down to a vote between two parties – Republicans (Bush, Nixon, Eisenhower) and Democrats (Obama, JFK, Clinton) – and this vote is done per state. Now, each state has its own smaller election, and whoever wins this state gets ALL of the electoral votes belonging to that state. Whomsoever wins the most electoral votes becomes president. Get it?

 (image from

This means that a few states matter more than others during election time. For example, it is highly unlikely that conservative states such as Texas and Mississippi will vote Democrat in this upcoming election. The converse applies to California and Illinois who are unlikely to vote for a Republican in 2012. The other factor to take into account is the population of the state, which determines how influential the state is in picking the president. For example, in a race to 270 electoral votes, California offers candidates 55 votes, Texas 38, and New York and Florida with 29. States with a smaller population, such as North Dakota have three electoral votes. A win in a state gets the party all of the electoral votes; meaning that even a 51% vote for a Republican in a state gives the Republican ALL of the state's electoral votes. (The exception in this case is Nebraska, which only has five votes, but they are awarded proportionally).  

Now, if we take the 2008 election as an indication of which states might swing and determine the result of the election, it is no surprise that current President Barack Obama has been visiting Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio recently. These are states he needs to win in order to maintain the presidency, as they have been known to change their minds – kind of like Mitt Romney. Most of them also have enough gravitas to decide the presidency.

Today Barack Obama is in Pennsylvania to bang on about extending payroll tax cuts to the working classes, and getting the wealthy to pay for them. While mostly working class Pennsylvania has usually swung Democrat, it voted the other way in the 2010 midterms which is one of the reasons the House of Representatives fell under Republican control. In 2012, Pennsylvania will carry 20 electoral votes. In the race to 270, that’s a rather nice chunk. Its neighbour, Ohio, will carry 18, and its neighbour Virginia has 13.

It’s also no surprise that on this trip the president is also visiting Florida, which holds 29 electoral votes. You’ll all remember Florida’s influence that robbed the world of the presidency of Al Gore in 2000 and heaved The Inconvenient Truth down the pipes of our televisions ever since. This is the impact that a swing state has.

So while the candidates for the presidency are appreciative of the support they will get from their bankable states, the real election will be contested in the swing states. Expect to see candidates and media all over Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Nevada.

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