Last month, during her southern swing through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, Democratic Party presidential long shot Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., made overtures to end the Electoral College.
If Warren had her way, the popular vote would determine the president of the U.S. Superficially, her plan is rational — after all, the popular vote has gone Democrat in six of the last seven presidential elections.
Instituting such a change would require a constitutional amendment. In our current political climate, however, the federal government can barely agree to pay the bills to keep the lights on, so this idea seems unlikely.
Critics of a popular vote-based system warn it would lead to only a handful of cities determining the president and freeze out every place else, including Alabama. Moreover, since major metropolitan areas tend to be more liberal, the candidate who espouses the most left-of-center views would have the best shot at winning.
What if tomorrow the Constitution were amended and the U.S. went to a straight-up popular vote system? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it probably wouldn’t mean Democrat presidencies for the foreseeable future.
The first casualty of scrapping the Electoral College would be the two-party system. Eliminating the Electoral College would likely lead to a more parliament-like system.
Without a winner-take-all element of the Electoral College and a focus on national campaigns, a vote for a third-party or independent candidate might be more meaningful. Over time, candidates would figure out how to capitalize.
Why participate in a costly presidential party primary? If it is no longer winner-take-all electoral votes, securing a party nomination would not mean as much. A third-party candidate like Ross Perot would have a better shot of acquiring actual votes in California, New York or Texas rather than vying for electoral votes.
That leads us to the next question: Which of the two major parties is the most vulnerable if the system becomes more fractured?
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have their inner-party squabbles. However, one might argue the modern Democratic Party is the most balkanized of the two parties.
The GOP is trending away from its rigidly ideological roots. The selection of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s nominee demonstrates this. To be sure, there remain so-called Never Trumpers and doctrinaire conservatives who still call themselves “Republicans.” But Trump’s domination in the 2016 primaries and his ability to unify Republicans around his candidacy in the general election suggests a less-divided party than in the last election cycle.
For Democrats, the landscape is different. The Democratic Party, since the middle of the last century, has been a coalition party — be it post-Civil War Democrats that dominated southern politics that were aligned with the northeastern Democrats of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, or what it is now.
Over time, the coalition has changed to a party of elites, minority groups and left-wing activists. This year’s presidential cycle could be a test to determine just how fragile this cobbled-together coalition is.
Ask yourself: In a post-Obama presidency world, who is the head of the Democratic Party now? That’s the problem. We know who the leader of the Republican Party is. It’s not clear who that might be for Democrats.
Politics abhors a vacuum. But without the Electoral College, competing visions for the Democratic Party will result in spin-off coalitions and political groups — sort of like Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948.
In this case, it could be environmentalists, labor unions, LGBT activists, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. They will all be vying to advance their agendas, and without the relevance of an Electoral College reinforcing the need to maintain a coalition, the party will likely devolve into a free-for-all of special interests.
Want proof the Democratic Party is a fragile coalition? Consider the potential candidacy of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. According to his interviews, Schultz sees many of the elements of the Democratic Party as too radical.
His proposed platform is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He also offers voters a milder temperament. Yet, as he is testing the waters of a presidential run, it is Democrats who are worried Schultz could possibly divide their traditional voters, which would pave the way for Trump’s re-election.
Axing the Electoral College for the popular vote may make sense mathematically for Democrats, but — like many Democrat ideals — it does not consider human nature. There are lots of voices in both political parties, each attached to a special interest or group that believes their cause is the most important. This dynamic creates the possibility of conflict.
The rest of the country that votes Republican may fracture somewhat, but the GOP coalition, at this point, has stronger philosophical bonds — based more on policy than identity.
Rather than trying to find an easy fix, Democrats are better served trying to win in the marketplace of ideas and not by changing the rules.
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