Obama's political team: Expediency over principle in "working" Electoral College rather than reforming it

by Rob Richie // Published June 21, 2009


President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign is already well underway. His early hires are the latest evidence of the negative effects of current state rules governing the Electoral College.

As background, Obama is unlikely to face a challenge for the Democratic nomination, meaning that as a candidate he can start focusing on the general election. The last incumbent president in a similar position was George Bush, whose campaign strategist Matthew Dowd has admitted that he never polled a single American living outside of 18 potential battleground states in the entire 2002—2004 campaign. 

It quite simply wasn’t worth a dime for Dowd to figure out what a single voter thought in Wyoming, California, Alabama, Rhode Island or any of the remaining states where Bush was comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind.  When such a “spectator state” uses a winner-take-all rule to allocate its electoral votes, a candidate’s number of electoral votes won’t be affected by a gain or loss of 3% in that state’s popular vote.

This blunt reality brings us to the Obama campaign’s decision to hire Mitch Stewart as “Battleground States Director.” Stewart has been Obama’s leading field man for years. In 2008 he was director of field operations for the Iowa caucuses, the pivotal first state where Obama’s victory made him a household name. He was director in several more primary states before directing the general election campaign in Virginia, which went to Democrats in a presidential election for the first time since 1964. 

Stewart’s key role was prominently featured in 2008 Obama campaign director David Plouffe’s book Audacity to Win. More recently, he has been director of Organizing for America, the 2008 Obama campaign spinoff formed to harness the energy of the volunteers that flocked to the 2008 campaign.

Given his background, you might think Mitch Stewart would be hired as National Field Director. Instead that position has gone to Jeremy Bird. Bird comes to his role with his own high credentials, including key positions in the 2008 campaign. At Organizing for America, however, he was the deputy director, where he reported to Stewart.

Making Stewart the Battleground States director is a simple recognition of the realities of how to be elected president under our current rules: swing states are more important than the nation as a whole. The nation is divided into two groups: about 15 battleground states (a number likely to decrease to about six in the campaign’s final weeks) and 35 confirmed “spectator states” stuck on the sidelines.

If presidential elections were decided instead by a national popular vote, there of course would be no “Battleground States Director” position. A vote in rural Kansas would be worth the same as a vote in downtown Miami, and the most important field position would be national field director. Other field staff presumably would be defined by region (“Southwestern Field Director”), state (“Wyoming Field Director”) and perhaps key constituencies (“Environmentalists” and “Tea Party”). 

The Obama campaign’s hiring priorities are only the latest indication of what we can expect next year – a billion dollars or so from both major party campaigns targeted on a relative handful of swing voters in a small number of swing states. 

It is time to change the rules that create such perverse incentives and instead have a national popular vote decide our highest national office. That’s why we should applaud the steady progress for the National Popular Vote plan for president. Introduced as a statute in all 50 states, the National Popular Vote plan is now law in eight states, a diverse group ranging from Hawaii and Vermont to Illinois and New Jersey.

Once enacted by states representing a majority of the Electoral College, the plan will govern the next election – quite likely in 2016 . Winning a national popular vote for president is worth making sure your state is the next one to stand up for the principle that every vote matters