More than half of this site's readers are not from the U.S. (The ratio is about 55–45.) For some reason, some of our non-U.S. readers write to me asking me to explain U.S. politics, customs, policy—recently, even economics(!).
Some are wondering lately why there's so much talk about "red states and blue states," and about the ubiquity of the term "battleground states." Here's how it works:
We don't put the presidency to a national vote. Each state is assigned a number of "electors" equal in number to its Congressional delegation (two Senators plus a number of Representatives proportionate to population), and the vote is state-by-state. It's winner take all (except in Maine and Nebraska, which have more complicated systems for assigning electors).
The states that lean heavily one way or the other are foregone conclusions—as far as the campaigns are concerned, those states might as well have already voted. It's the states in which the vote is close (the paler colors on this map) that close elections comes down to, and where the election is really contested. That's why you hear so much about Florida and Ohio but not as much about New York or Texas.
But a win's a win. If Obama wins Illinois with 90% of the vote and McCain wins Pennsylvania with 51% of the vote, they still each get 21 electoral votes. This explains why a candidate can lose the election while winning the popular vote, as Gore did in 2000. It also partly explains the perception that Americans don't vote, too—if you're an underdog in a "decided" state, there's not as much incentive for getting out and voting. (It also explains the McCain campaign "pulling out" of Michigan this past week—it essentially conceded that the State is going to go to Obama and reassigned those resources to other states that remain in play. It's not a disaster for McCain—other states have already been "conceded," essentially, by each campaign. We just don't hear as much about them.)
In any event, there's only one kind of map in a U.S. Presidential election that matters. I deliberately picked an old one, from last week, so as not to be controversial, but any such map will look something like this (McCain in red):
A map like this should also make it clear why winning Florida (27 Electors) or New York (31) is more important than winning Vermont (3) or Wyoming (3).
So why is the press still so enamored of tracking national polls, when they're relatively meaningless? No clue, except that the real story is more complicated and less reducible to soundbites, and people enjoy popularity polls.
And why do Americans put up with this archaic, piecemeal, some say stupid Electoral system in place of a straightforward nationalwide vote, when virtually the whole rest of the world that used to practice it has abandoned it? Apart from the inertia of "because that's the way we've always done it," I can think of at least two reasons: because changing the Constitution is difficult, and because it tends to benefit one party more than the other (not always the same one), giving at least one party a vested interest in blocking reform at any given time.
You know what they say: Oh well.
End of U.S. civics 101 for today. Please keep any comments non-partisan!