In the on-again, off-again effort to dull the impact of the hopelessly antiquated Electoral College, some Pennsylvania Republicans are taking a bold new approach. If their proposal were to gain steam throughout the country, Democrats would face an uphill climb in any future presidential elections.
A number of Pennsylvania legislators are proposing to change the way the Keystone State allocates its electoral votes. Instead of handing all 20 electoral votes to the statewide winner, Pennsylvania would allocate Electoral College votes by congressional district. They have the support of GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, and legislators say they'll bring up the proposal later this year.
Two states—Maine and Nebraska—already allocate votes proportionally by district, with the statewide winner receiving the additional two statewide electoral votes. But those two states, one usually deep blue, another crimson red, have split their votes only once; President Obama took a single district in Nebraska in 2008. But Pennsylvania is a much more politically diverse state; three years ago, under the new proposal, it would have awarded 10 votes to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and 11—nine districts plus the two at-large votes—to Obama.
Now imagine if every state followed the Pennsylvania plan. Obama won 28 states and the District of Columbia in 2008, giving him a base of 58 electoral votes (two for every statewide win). He won another 243 congressional districts (again, including D.C.), which, at a single vote each, would have put him at 301 electoral votes, enough to win the White House. The 22 states McCain won, plus the remaining 193 districts, would have given the Republican 237 electoral votes.
The overall outcome, in short, would not have changed. But Obama's path to victory would have changed dramatically. It would no longer have gone through significant metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Denver, and Cincinnati—all major markets in which turnout surged and helped Obama win key swing states. Instead, Obama would have had to compete in individual congressional districts he barely won.
To maintain the 270 votes necessary to win the Electoral College, Obama would have had to win a significant number of seats now held by Republicans. He could afford to lose 31 seats—that is, every district in which he won by less than 5.6 percent. (Under the 2008 map of congressional districts, the seat now held by freshman Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina would have provided Obama's 270th vote.) Obama won a total of 61 districts now held by Republicans; he would have to keep at least 30, along with a majority of the vote in every state he won in 2008, to stay in office.
Obama won by less than a single percentage point in districts now held by Republican Reps. Leonard Lance in New Jersey and Dan Lungren, John Campbell, and Ken Calvert, all in California. He won another six districts, stretching from Rep. Randy Forbes' seat in rural Virginia to Rep. Dan Benishek's seat in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan and Rep. Buck McKeon's Inland Empire in California, by less than 2 percentage points.
Fortunately for President Obama's party, Pennsylvania's proposal is running into hurdles among senior Republicans in both Harrisburg and Washington. State Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason is against the plan, as are many in the state's congressional delegation.
That's because, as National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions has pointed out, it would threaten some of his most vulnerable members. Instead of spending money to gin up turnout in Democrat-heavy Philadelphia districts he would win anyway, Obama's team would target more suburban and exurban seats like those held by Reps. Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan.
The intra-party objections make it unlikely the state will actually change its system of awarding electoral votes. But it's an interesting exercise to consider just how tough the path would get for Democrats if the major focal markets in a presidential race became Lance's Edison and Union, Lungren's Sacramento, Campbell's Irvine, and Calvert's Riverside. Just don't expect it to happen any time soon.