Gaming the Electoral College

A model uses game theory to predict how changes to the electoral system could shift campaign strategies and ad spending — and alter election results.
October 30, 2012 | Research Feature
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This article originally appeared in our October 2010 issue and has been revised and updated for the 2012 presidential election.

As Mitt Romney and President Obama crisscross the nation this campaign season, some voters are receiving VIP treatment. The country’s electoral college system almost guarantees that voters in swing states, like Ohio and Florida, get more candidate attention, both on campaign stops and on the airwaves, than in states that lean decidedly Democratic or Republican. In fact, according to Professor Brett Gordon, just one third of the US population was exposed to more than 90 percent of campaign advertising in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

The role of the Electoral college in shaping national elections has been under particular scrutiny since 2000. Only three times in US history has the electoral vote trumped the popular vote in a presidential election, but the uniquely contentious results in 2000 rekindled the debate about whether to abolish the winner-take-all electoral college in favor of a direct national vote. Since then, a handful of states have passed legislation pledging their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote and several others have considered following suit.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of the electoral college is the way it influences candidates’ campaign strategies, creating battleground states that attract a disproportionate amount of attention from candidates in terms of advertising dollars, fundraising, and candidate appearances relative to the number of popular votes those states represent. While Gordon estimates that $3 to $5 billion will be spent on advertising in the 2012 election, those dollars aren’t spent evenly. California, New York, and Texas — large states with huge numbers of electoral votes — barely register in presidential campaigns. These blockbuster-sized states are viewed as noncompetitive because the margins of victory for the dominant party in each are so big that campaigns view their election results as predetermined. And although geographically indiscriminate social media is playing a more prominent role than ever in elections, Gordon says political campaigns still focus the majority of their media budgets on TV ads.

Consider the 2008 presidential campaign. More than $600 million was spent on television ads in the 2008 race, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, a research initiative documenting US presidential and congressional campaign advertising between 1998 and 2008. The Obama campaign advertised very little in New York, probably on the calculation that John McCain was unlikely to advertise much because he was unlikely to win in the heavily Democratic state. Likewise, common wisdom suggests that the McCain campaign passed over advertising in Texas, where it anticipated that the Obama campaign would not invest much in ad efforts — because the Democrat would most likely lose in the Republican stronghold. But both candidates showered swing state Ohio with advertising, partially because each campaign sought to influence Ohio’s outcome and believed the other would do the same.

In the 2000 race, it was battleground state Florida that brought these criticisms most sharply into relief, prompting the most recent calls for electoral college reform. “A lot of people — safe to say mostly Democrats — think back to Gore and Bush in 2000,” Gordon says, “and conclude that if we’d had a direct national vote instead of using the electoral college, Gore would have won.

“But that may not be true,” Gordon contends. “If you change the way the system works, then you change the way candidates campaign.” After all, it would be political suicide if candidates didn’t also shift their campaign strategies and instead continued to ignore large markets like Los Angeles, New York City, or Houston. “Even though the larger stronghold states lean strongly one way or the other, there may be people in the middle whose votes could be swayed. These areas would become much more competitive in attracting candidates’ attention.”

Gordon, working with Wesley Hartmann of Stanford University, created an econometric model of the electoral system and combined it with advertising data from 2000 to 2004 from the Wisconsin Advertising Project. The model combines game theory with methods from economics, marketing, and political science to predict how changes in the electoral system would prompt changes in campaign ad spending and how those changes would in turn affect voter decisions and election outcomes. (Listen to Gordon discuss the context and design of the model in this podcast.)

The results suggest that, without the electoral college, advertising would indeed shift away from battleground states and proportionally toward the large states where candidates, at present, tend to do little advertising. Interestingly, a direct national vote might make for more expensive elections — preliminary results show total spending on advertising going up. (How advertising directly affects voters is still hotly debated among political scientists — Gordon says his own research suggests that advertising in presidential elections leads to both turnout and persuasion effects.)

Gordon and Hartmann also ran their model as if there had been no advertising in the 2000 presidential election (with the electoral college in place). While the scenario itself is a bit unrealistic, researchers run such counterfactuals as checks on the soundness of their underlying methods and math. If results seem too far out — say, either candidate winning by 400 electoral votes — that’s a sign the model or methods are probably flawed. In this alternate reality, Gore picked up Florida and New Hampshire for a total of 29 electoral votes, while Oregon shifted to Bush for a total 22 votes, putting the outcome at 288 to 249, in Gore’s favor. “These states all had thin margins of victory in the actual election,” Gordon says, “so it’s not surprising to see them switch. But without the model, we wouldn’t have known whether eliminating advertising would have tilted a given state one way or another.”

And in 2012, the electoral college isn’t the only influence on campaign advertising — political action committees (PACs) are also major players. Although PACs have existed for decades, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that PACs that did not make contributions to candidates, parties, or other PACs could accept unlimited contributions from individual donors, unions, and corporations, and the “super PAC” was born. Their creation has already had an enormous impact on the 2012 presidential race, with super PACs spending more than the candidates’ campaigns during the Republican primary. “The super PACs are contributing to these inequities between battleground and non-battleground states and will keep increasing the gap,” Gordon said.

“But we are particularly interested in the electoral college first because of the vocal criticism that it disenfranchises voters in non-battleground states and deprives them of attention from candidates, who might position their own policies to appeal to voters in battleground states rather than more broadly,” he says. “For these voters, the electoral college seems unfair.”

PACs are among the topics Gordon plans to study using the model, mainly to evaluate the different ways candidates could choose to allocate limited resources to the most effective markets.

“With every election that’s very close in this regard, such as in 2000, it creates renewed discussion and highlights some of the problems with the electoral college that could be minimized under a direct popular vote.

“Should we encourage a system where as many people are involved in the process as possible? How do we value spreading out an election?” Gordon asks. “These are real policy questions, and our work can make predictions about the likely changes that would happen under a new system and inform policy discussion.”

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Brett Gordon is Class of 1967 Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.

Brett Gordon

Brett Gordon was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2007 to 2014.