Presidential Visits: Current Electoral College Rules Distort Attention

by Matt Morris, Rob Richie, Presidential Tracker // Published April 20, 2011

The current rules governing the Electoral College distort how presidential candidates and their campaigns act in general elections. In the 2008 presidential election, for example more than 98% of campaign events and campaign spending focused on 15 states representing barely a third of Americans in the campaign's final months. But once a candidate becomes president, does this behavior of greater focus on states that are electorally important continue? The answer appears to be yes.

Relying on the Washington Post's POTUS Tracker, we have compiled the locations and dates of President Barack Obama's public events and found that in general, the White House scheduled more events in the "battleground states" that were major players in the 2008 presidential election.Given the influence of the current Electoral College system and the fact that incumbent presidents are aware of the next election from the start of their presidency, the results may not be surprising -- but provide another reform to seek reform.

FairVote first spotlighted this phenomenon in a 2009 innovative analysis that revealed the remarkable degree of extra attention given to swing states in the early months of the Obama presidency. We concluded, as in this blog post, that this inequality, can best be explained by incentives created by the current rules governing the Electoral College.

The trends haven’t been quite so pronounced in the two years since then, but they remain clear. For example:

  • President Obama has spent seven days in North Carolina, a state he narrowly won in 2008. Yet he has not visited neighboring South Carolina - -although it played a major role in his nomination, it is not considered a general election swing state.
  • President Obama has spent five days in Iowa, which not only holds the first nominating contest, but also is a general election battleground. He has not visited several nearby states carried by John McCain like Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
  • President Obama has visited 2008 swing state Nevada for seven days. Neighboring Utah is safely Republican -- and has not had a presidential visit.
  • Twelve states have not had a single presidential visit. One (Vermont) is safely Democrat, and eleven (Arkansas , Idaho , Kansas, Kentucky , Nebraska, North Dakota , Oklahoma, South Carolina , South Dakota. Tennessee, and Utah) are safely Republican. None are swing states, although Obama did earn one electoral vote in Nebraska in 2008 due to its congressional district rule for allocating electoral votes.

This week, the trend continues as President Obama takes his argument with Republican leaders about budget priorities out beyond the Beltway. Yesterday he held a town hall in the swing state of Virginia, and, after West Coast fundraising and a town hall at the California headquarters of Facebook, will then hold a town hall in the swing state of Nevada. On Monday, he addressed his budget plans on local radio today in Indianapolis (IN), Raleigh (NC), Denver (CO) and Dallas (TX).  Three of the four cities are in 2008 swing states, and the fourth (Texas) is one where Democrats have been testing their prospects.

The Hard Numbers

You can download our full, day-by-day spreadsheet here. Looking deeper into the data, we begin at the top of the list with states where presidential visits can largely be explained for reasons other than the current Electoral College system.

Virginia and Maryland are unsurprisingly the top two states in the list because of their proximity to Washington D.C., and relative ease in visiting. Though the number of visits for these states are high in comparison to the rest of the country, it could have been higher -- we excluded various trips the President made to these two states for activities like playing golf (14 trips to Fort Belvoir, VA and 13 trips to Andrews Air Force Base) and visiting Maryland's Camp David (26 times).

The next state to receive a disproportionate number of visits has been Hawaii, where the Obama family has vacationed each winter. Vacationing also adds up for Massachusetts, where the Obamas vacationed for 7 days in 2009 and 9 days in 2010. President Obama spent several days in New York due to the United Nations (4 days in 2009, and 3 in 2010).

New York and Massachusetts, along with California, are also top fundraising states (both in terms of how many fundraiser events were held and how much each state contributed in 2008).

Partisanship and whether Obama won the state in 2008 seems to play a factor in looking at events and visits. The top 14 states all voted for Obama (states with 6 visits or above), and out of states that have three or more presidential visits, 21 of the 25 states voted Democratic. Of the remaining most-visited states, Texas and Arizona have higher numbers in part due to the tragedies of Fort Hood and Tucson, as well as memorial services for miners held in West Virginia.

Despite being a “Republican” state, Obama traveled to Georgia twice. Coincidentally, Georgia could be put into play in the 2012 election - Obama only lost by 5%, which is not a monumental obstacle -- and potentially worth a try, given that it and Texas are the largest "Republican-leaning states going into 2012. Other exceptions include: Wyoming (a trip to Yellowstone National Park); Alaska (stopping by a military base during his Asia Trip in 2009); and three states (Louisiana, Alabama & Mississippi) particularly affected by last year's BP oil spill.

Overall, of the 264 days that Obama has spent outside of Washington, D.C. (again, according to the Washington Post), 202 of those days (over 75%) were spent in 14 out of 50 states (28% of states). Clearly, something is wrong when the President, who represents the entire nation, spends most of his time in a concentrated number of states, especially in public events engaging with ordinary voters.

One way to avoid these inequalities in presidential elections and governance would be for states to adopt the National Popular Vote plan, which is designed to guarantee that the president should be elected by the popular vote of the entire United States. The National Popular Vote legislaition has been signed into law in six states and the District of Columbia, and later this week is expected to be signed into law in Vermont. Once governing our elections after passage in sufficient states, every vote in the nation will be counted as equal, and the distinctions among states in a national election will be secondary to reaching out to all Americans. No one state would have any more importance than another, with the most important goal in an election being simply o receive more votes than one's top opponent. While we may not be able to predict exactly how presidential behavior will change once this proposal is enacted, it's nearly certain that candidates and presidents will treat all states far more equitably than today.