In Their Own Words: Campaign Strategists on the Electoral College

by Matt Sledge // Published July 3, 2009
The American public at large is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its understanding of the Electoral College, especially with the debut of websites like The winner-take-all Electoral College system, we've come to realize, is responsible for much of the slice-and-dice demographic targeting used in modern presidential campaign. During the campaign season we are spoken to as a collection of focus groups and swing voters, not a nation of Americans.

Don't believe it? Let's turn the mic over to a group of people with unassailable, first-hand knowledge of the presidential campaign process: the strategists. This elite cadre of political wizards knows better than anyone else what the Electoral College does to the picking of the president. Since November they've told a variety of outlets about the behind-the-scenes story of how the winner-take-all Electoral College determines their every step. Here are some of their more revealing insights...

The general election was never a 50-state contest. "The campaign," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says in this video, "for those of you that followed it, watched on cable, were online a lot, was all about the Gallup poll, and national coverage." We had it all wrong: instead, the Obama team "viewed the campaign always through battleground states [...] this was a series of contests in a series of states. It's a puzzle to get to 270."

The board game metaphor should be taken quite literally: according to Esquire, Plouffe played the Electoral College like the rest of us would play a jigsaw puzzle. He consulted the electoral map constantly: "I look at it on the computer all the time...It's kind of like my North Star. They can never take that away from me. I don't think my wife would like it, but I'd put that map up in every room of our house if I could."

The winner-take-all system determines the very structure of campaign organizations. Plouffe was keenly attuned to the demands it placed on his operation. As he told Portfolio:

We were kind of a service organization in some respects to the states. We had a whole team in Chicago there to serve the states, who were out there in the battleground and war zones. [...] There are the states, which were always critical, and within the states, there's a state director, the ground game, and people doing press in the states. We viewed the campaign as essentially 16 different campaigns, because every state is different.
The candidates realize how potentially divisive the Electoral College can be. At one point during the campaign, McCain's chief pollster believed his candidate could win the Electoral College without winning the popular vote. And he was worried about what would happen. From Time:
The context of the entire campaign, McInturff said, was a national math that did not favor McCain at any point. He said he told the candidate that the "happy scenario" was for McCain to narrowly win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote by about 3 million. Because of this, McInturff advised McCain not to campaign in an overly divisive manner, lest the task of governing become nearly impossible.
Your opinion matters--but only if you live in a swing state. Just read this January Washington Post interview with David Plouffe carefully:
But I think the real underappreciated story is the people in Marion, Indiana, and you know, in Asheville, North Carolina, and Hillsboro County, Florida, who were out there living their lives, or part of it, through the campaign every day, talking to their neighbors and colleagues [...] we had millions of Americans out there talking about the campaign everyday. Here's Barack's plan on the economy, on jobs, also helping people respond to attacks. So if someone came up to one of our supporters in Pennsylvania and he said, "Well what's about this Bill Ayers character?" They would know what to say. And it's hard to quantify that, but we know it was really important.
Why did Plouffe specifically pick the good people of Indiana, North Carolina, and Florida as examples of what his campaign did right? Not just because they're fine folks, but also because they happened to live in those swing states: according to Plouffe, "we view this through the prism of the battleground states, that's all we focused on." And--through no fault of Plouffe's, just through the logic of the system we use today--the voters of Texas and California get left by the wayside.