The Best Electoral College Stories of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

by Devin McCarthy // Published January 15, 2013


Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, FairVote tracked news stories related to the winner-take-all Electoral College and how it influenced the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. We posted many of those stories to this blog, as part of our "Presidential Tracker" series. 

With the campaign season months behind us, this post will revisit the most interesting and illuminating of those stories. Listed below are the news articles, editorials, and blog posts that best captured the the distortions and unfairness caused by the winner-take-all Electoral College system in 2012 - and demonstrated most clearly the need to switch to a national popular vote for president.


Swing State Strategy

These stories illustrate how the Obama and Romney campaigns were affected by their need to concentrate almost exclusively on an increasingly small number of "swing states."

Swing-State Math Breaks for Obama, Politico / Joe Scarborough, 6/6/12. Early on in the campaign cycle, Scarborough brings up a point that will be oft-noted later: Obama had an advantage because unemployment was disproportionately lower in swing states compared to the rest of the country.

Hispanic Voters Less Plentiful in Swing States, FiveThirtyEight / Nate Silver, 6/19/12. Silver notes that because Latinos are underrepresented in swing states, Obama's policy decisions relating to Latinos mattered less than they would have in a nationwide vote.

Obama Viewing Fire Damage in Swing State Colorado, Fox News, 6/29/12. Obama's visit to the areas of Colorado devasted by wildfire was framed and analyzed in the context of Colorado's swing state status.

So, What Does it Feel Like to Live in a Battleground State?, PBS / Christina Bellantoni, 7/12/12. PBS shows just how many political ads the residents of swing states are forced to endure every day.

President Obama's Disproportionate Battleground Focus Started Early, Echoed Predecessors' Actions, The Washington Monthly / Brendan Doherty, 8/1/12. Doherty, a political science professor, found that most modern presidents have spent a disproportionate amount of time in battleground states during their first terms.

Inside Obama's Swing State Charm Tour, Time Magazine / Alex Altman, 8/3/12. Time explores the Obama campaign's stategy of lavishing attention on swing states - at the expense of the rest of the country, of course.

The Paul Ryan Bump is Boosting Romney in These Crucial Swing States, Business Insider / Brett LoGiurato, 8/22/12. Romney's pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate only mattered in terms of how it affected swing states - especially Ryan's home state of Wisconsin.

How do Voter ID Laws Correlate to Swing States?, Constitution Daily, 8/22/12. The answer is that they do. A higher percentage of swing states have passed photo ID laws than non-swing states, although some have been barred from implementing them by courts.

Swing State Governors Set to Repay Romney's Help, USA Today / Jackie Kucinich, 8/31/12. Mitt Romney helped several swing state governors win election in 2010, and those same governors took the opportunity to help the Romney campaign in 2012. 

Virginia Ex-Congressman Could Cost Romney the Election, The Daily Beast / Patricia Murphy, 9/16/12. The winner-take-all system makes it easier for third party candidates such as Virgil Goode to "spoil" the election by getting a substantial share of the vote in a swing state.

In a Tight Race, Obama Draws on the Levers of His Power, The New York Times / Peter Baker and Eric Lipton, 9/19/12. The Times details the various ways in which President Obama used his policymaking abilities to try to persuade swing state voters during the campaign - sometimes enacting policies that favored swing over non-swing states.

Ads Slice up Swing States with Growing Precision, NPR / Ari Shapiro, 9/24/12. The two presidential campaigns fine-tuned their ad campaigns in swing states to create maximum dollar-for-vote efficiency.


Neglected Safe States

These stories come from states that either recently fell off the swing state map or had been safe for one party for many years, and consequently were neglected by both the Obama and Romney campaigns in 2012.

Missouri's Swing State Luster Dims, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Nicholas J.C. Pistor, 6/24/12. As early as June, it had become clear that Mitt Romney would win Missouri, making it uncontested (and ignored) for the first time in several elections. 

Unswinging, Oregon is an Election Afterthought, The Oregonian / David Sarasohn, 7/21/12. Sarasohn laments the Oregon reality that "for presidential candidates, we're not an audience, we're an ATM."

Texas on Sidelines in Fight for Swing States, San Angelo Standard Times / Dave McNeely, 8/1/12. Texas Republicans felt jilted at the Republican Convention, as swing states were given preferential treatment.

Romney Campaign Not Expected to Invest Much in PA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Timothy McNulty, 9/8/12. Even though Pennsylvania ultimately ended up being the "tipping point state" that would have won Romney the presidency had he improved his national popular vote average, for much of the campaign it was perceived as a safe state for Obama and received little attention from either campaign. "Poor Pennsylvania," as McNulty puts it.


Wrong-Way Winners and Ties

These stories speculated on what seemed to be the real possibility of a wrong-way winner or tie in the 2012 presidential election, and the chaos those outcomes might have caused.

Could the Presidential Election End in a Tie, RealClearPolitics / Erin McPike, 7/10/12. RCP becomes one of the first of many news outlets to point out that there was a plausible Electoral College outcome in which both Obama and Romney would end up with 269 electoral votes, leaving the victor of the election to be determined by Congress. 

Romney, Obama Could Split Popular and Electoral College Vote, Polls Suggest, The Washington Post / Karen Tumulty, 10/26/12. Just days before the election, the Post discusses the strong possibility of a wrong-way winner election, in which different candidates win the popular vote and Electoral College. A Romney popular vote win and an Obama Electoral College win was seen as especially likely.


The Need for Reform

These stories persuasively argue that the current winner-take-all Electoral College system needs to be abolished in favor of a national popular vote for president.

The Case for Eliminating the US Electoral College, The New Statesman / Liam Hoare, 8/22/12. Hoare decries the "repulsive, petty, and hysterical localism" that the state winner-take-all system causes.

A College that Should be Disbanded, The Washington Post / Richard Cohen, 10/22/12. Cohen argues that another wrong-way winner election would do "incalculable damage to the public's faith in democracy."

The Vanishing Battleground, The New York Times / Adam Liptak, 11/3/12. Citing FairVote and John Koza, Liptak notes the marked decline in the number of swing states over the past several decades, and proposes a national popular vote as an alternative.