Despite very different historical and constitutional bases for how we nominate presidential candidates and elect presidents to office, as well as very different political processes (sequential versus simultaneous voting), both the presidential nominating process and the Electoral College are rooted in state elections, not a national election, and both create state winners and losers. States that vote early in the nomination process benefit, as do battleground or "swing" states in the general election, especially small population states. There are widespread concerns that too much attention is paid to Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first in the presidential nomination process (Squire 1989; Winebrenner 1998), and to Ohio and Florida, which often play a pivotal role in the general election.
Today, there are repeated calls to reform both the presidential nomination process and the Electoral College. Under riding calls for reform of both processes is a desire for fairness and consistency. One solution that appears to have broad appeal is to nationalize elections by adopting a national primary and a national popular vote, circumventing the Electoral College. In this paper, we consider how the public may evaluate such proposals against competing factors that may reduce support.
We use a 2008 national panel survey to test the importance of state-based self-interest in support for reform of the Electoral College and nomination process. We expect that people will support reform of presidential elections based on the interest of their state (long-term factors) and will change their opinions about reform based on electoral outcomes (short-term factors). Our analysis shows that citizen opinions on nationalizing presidential elections through a national primary or national popular vote for president are based on strategic decisions defined by short-term electoral politics and long-term self-interest rooted in an individual's state. We find that citizens voting for winning candidates and those who reside in states that have a great deal of influence in the current system are far less supportive of reform than either partisan losers or those living in states that have less influence under the current rules. We argue that a combination of these short and long-term influences shapes support for nationalizing U.S. presidential elections, reforms that an increasing number of citizens and political elites are taking seriously.
Reform Efforts to Nationalize Presidential Elections
Support for changing election rules in the United States has been gaining momentum since the contested 2000 presidential election, which was followed by a lengthy legal battle in Florida that ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore. The decision resolved the dispute in Florida, which handed George W. Bush the presidency even though the Democratic candidate, Vice President AI Gore, had won some 500,000 more votes nationwide. Only on rare occasions in American history has the popular vote winner been defeated, but the controversial election created ripple effects in motivating efforts to reform American elections.
But in other ways, the events of 2000 were not new. Since the Civil War, one-third of all presidential candidates and winners of the Electoral College have been elected with a plurality rather than a majority of the national popular vote (Donovan and Bowler 2004). When one considers those voting for the losing presidential candidate and a losing third-party candidate (Perot, Nader, etc.), a majority of Americans who cast a vote for president are on the losing side about a third of the time in recent presidential elections. Some suggest that the failure to secure a majority may continue in the future with the rise of independents and dissatisfaction with the two major political parties (Blais 2008).
No other country uses an Electoral College to mediate between a national or direct/popular vote for presidential candidates and the winner. …