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The Shaky Architecture of the U.S. Presidential Election System

Sep 06, 2012

At times, China has been a focal point in the presidential campaign, with Romney accusing Obama of being too soft on China’s alleged economic violations, and Obama firing back with accusations that Romney outsourced jobs to China when he was in the private sector. With China also going through a leadership change this fall, this election could set the tone for U.S.-China relations for years to come.

Recent opinion polls have handed the Obama campaign some good news. Most polls have found that President Obama has a modest lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in three critical battleground states, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. While there are still two months ago, the Obama campaign undoubtedly has been slapping high-fives over this news. But why should polls from only three out of 50 US states cause such jubilation in the Obama camp?

For starters, no candidate has won the presidency without winning two of these three states since 1960. The memorable 2000 presidential election, in which George W. Bush eked out a controversial victory over Al Gore, was decided by only a few hundred votes in Florida. And the 2004 election, in which Bush won reelection over Democrat John Kerry, was decided by a close race in Ohio.

But to really understand the importance of these three states in the upcoming election – and why anti-China sentiment may play a role in which candidate wins – it's necessary to understand a bit about the architecture of how the US presidential contest works. Contrary to public perception, the presidential election is not a "national" election. It's an election of 50 individual state contests, plus the District of Columbia (the nation’s capital city), each of which are allotted a certain number of electoral votes in the Electoral College that corresponds roughly with each state's population. The more populous the state, the more electoral votes.

However, any competent political analyst already can predict which candidate will win approximately 40 out of the 50 states. That’s because most of these states are solidly "blue" i.e. Democratic, or "red" i.e. Republican, since there are so many of one type of voter in these states that its outcome is certain. States like California, New York and Illinois would vote for a Democratic donkey over any Republican candidate, and states like Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma would vote for a Republican elephant over any Democratic candidate. There is nothing that either of the candidates can do to change this demographic reality, short of exposing the other candidate as a crook or a sex offender.

So that means that what should be a national election is actually an election of only a handful of battleground states. Most American voters living in the non-battleground states view the presidential election as spectators on the 43rd row, and it literally does not matter if they show up to the polls on November 6 because the outcome in their state is already decided.

So with the political battleground much reduced, the election will be decided in about 9 undecided “swing” states. But among those swing states, all states are not equal – three of these are heavyweight states with a lot of electoral votes, while the other six are lightweights.

Here's how the electoral math works out. Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio each have 29, 20 and 18 electoral votes respectively. The other six battleground states, and the electoral votes for each, are: New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), Colorado (9), Wisconsin (10) and Virginia (13).  As you can see, a candidate would have to win several of these smaller states to make up for the loss of either Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

So if any candidate hits the trifecta – wins all three of these big undecided states – it's game over. In fact, if any candidate wins two of the three, it's game over. With Pennsylvania leaning towards Obama, this election may very well come down to Florida and Ohio, just as the elections in 2000 and 2004 did. Call it “Flo-hio,” and its voters are going to decide the US presidency for the entire world.

That's why the Obama campaign must have been celebrating when they saw those poll results. But Obama shouldn't get too complacent, because it's relatively early in the campaign. Besides the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions in late August and early September, there will be three presidential debates in the month of October. Democratic insiders remember well that in the 2000 presidential election Al Gore performed so poorly in the first debate that it blew his lead and hurt his chances of winning.

But the biggest wildcard is the terrible economy, which is showing no signs of improving any time soon (especially with the European and Chinese economies – by far America's largest trading partners – also in the doldrums). The Romney campaign is going to try and blame the hard economic times on Obama, and Obama is vulnerable on this front. As part of their denunciations of Obama’s economic management, and as a way to drive away labor union support from Obama in manufacturing swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have accused the president of not being tough enough on China.

Romney has called China a cheater on trade, a manipulator of currency and a thief of US technology and patents. He has said that the president is being "treated like a doormat" by Beijing. He has called Obama the "outsourcer-in-chief” for sending jobs to low-wage nations such as China and India, and promised to crack down on China if he is elected.

Obama’s defense has been to blame the economy on his predecessor President George W Bush, and say that a Romney presidency will result in a return to the failed policies of the Bush administration that led to the economic collapse in 2008. Romney's previous job as a hedge fund owner of Bain Capital, in which his company killed off other companies and fired thousands of workers, has fed into the Obama campaign's narrative that Romney is a wealthy, out-of-touch blueblood with little regard for the economic plight of everyday Americans. While Obama has not resorted to China bashing nearly as much as Romney, his campaign released an advertisement claiming Romney made a fortune outsourcing US jobs to China while he was at the helm of Bain.

The Obama administration also defends its China policy by pointing out that it has filed seven unfair trade complaints against China with the World Trade Organization, the most recent one in July over alleged unfair Chinese duties on American cars that the White House claims violate international trade rules. The outcomes of the previous six complaints have favored the U.S., and the Obama campaign trumpets that achievement as proof of Obama's toughness with China.

No doubt, both sides will continue to play the China card to boost their campaigns. Despite the Obama administration's successful WTO complaints, the US trade deficit with China stands at $91.6 billion for the first four months of 2012, according to the US Department of Commerce. That will fuel the anti-China bashing of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Fortunately for Obama, the economy in Ohio, which is very dependent on manufacturing, has been doing better than the national economy.

But since this election will be decided in a handful of battleground states, both candidates are looking to target those states with their campaign missiles, including their anti-China rhetoric. Even for Americans, this checkerboard presidential election method is pretty confusing. What's doubly alarming is that, not only will the election be decided by just a handful of swing states, but WITHIN those states only a handful of undecided voters will decide which candidate wins each state. Recent polls have found that only 6% of American voters remain undecided about whether to support Obama or Romney.

So who are these 6% of undecided voters? As one political consultant has described these so-called "swing voters," "Those are the ones that are least interested and least knowledgeable about politics, who don't tune in until the last few days of the campaign, and if you don't catch them in 8 seconds with your TV ads that slash and burn you've lost them." In such a dumbed-down environment, anti-China appeals are likely to keep popping up on America's television sets and Internet ads.

So what should be a national election for the most powerful elected leader in the world in actual fact is going to be decided by a handful of clueless, undecided voters in a handful of states. Flo-hio swing voters, truly a unique breed of American. If it's a close election – and I think it's very possible that we may be facing a replay of the squeaker 2000 presidential election between Gore and Bush – I shudder to think what kind of TV ads will be bombarding viewers in Florida and Ohio the last week of the campaign, as the two candidates try to convince these oblivious voters that the other guy is the worst thing since Attila the Hun.

Yet despite all that is at stake, we will be lucky if 60% of eligible Americans turn out to vote. Why vote when, in most of the states, the presidential election already has been decided? Given how much the American president affects countries all over the world, many non-American friends have told me, "People from other countries should be allowed to vote for the US president." Imagine if people in China were allowed to vote in the US presidential election. They probably would turn out in higher numbers than do Americans.

Steven Hill ( is a political writer whose latest books are "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2012 Election Edition" ( and "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" (  

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