Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Buckeye Bellwether?

With the polarization of the electorate, one of the most significant ramifications has been a shift in presidential campaigns to focusing on a few select swing states. The days when Reagan and FDR had landslide electoral college victories appear to be behind us. Even Obama, who's doing very well in the swing states ( and is currently projected to pick up at least 320 electoral votes in November, has no real shot at winning "red" states like Arkansas, Tennessee or Louisiana.(all of which were won by Bill Clinton in 1992). As such, states such as Ohio are getting a disproportionate of campaign attention.

With states like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida and of course Ohio liable to be won by either party in a given election, we've seen the advent of bellwether states. The basic idea behind a bellwether state is that the candidate that wins that state will go on to win the election. From a more scientific viewpoint, bellwether states are indicative of which way the other swing states are likely to vote. Ohio is viewed as one of the top bellwether states: it has only voted for a non-winning candidate twice since 1896 (once in 1944, and 1960). Since 1964, Ohio has always voted for the winning candidate. Following this logic, many pundits and strategists assume that if a candidate can win a bellwether state, they'll win the election. As such, most candidates have focused an inordinate amount of energy in the "bellwethers".

There are two glaring problems with this "bellwether" strategy though. 1st, the list of "true" bellwether states shrinks each election. One good example is that Kentucky and Tennessee are classic swing states, and yet are likely to vote against Obama in what looks to be a landslide electoral victory. Ultimately this bellwether obsession turns into media and campaign super-hype. With Kentucky not considered a swing state this year, the campaigns are both pouring absurd amounts of resources into Ohio and ignoring the neighboring state. With fewer and fewer states that "matter", the electoral process is diluted for the vast majority of opinions. If you don't live in a swing state your vote won't make a huge difference in the Presidential Vote. Kentucky citizens drive to Ohio to caucus, even when scores of undecided voters are present at home.

The second major fallacy of the bellwether states is that their designation is really reverse engineering. The view is that somehow these states' results will predict the election. In reality, it is not that these states are somehow special- it is a quirk of our antiquated electoral college that causes an undue focus on large states with divided demographics. In the case of Ohio too, 8 native sons have been elected to the presidency. This no doubt affected the vote in Ohio. Ohio's power as one of the most powerful swing states often allows it to make a huge difference in who is ultimately chosen as president, not vice versa. In short, the view of cause-and-effect is inherently flawed. Sure only 2 presidents have won without Ohio, but its hard without 20 swing votes.

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