Civics 101

With apologies to international readers who, understandably, have little interest in the mechanics of the U.S.’s political process and to domestic readers who are already tired to death of what seems to be a never-ending political season, I offer a brief foray into politi-speak, a mini-primer of terminology associated with the 2012 presidential election.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of a news junkie. Like many of you, I’ve been listening for months as political commentators and news media repeatedly analyze the political landscape heading into the 2012 presidential election. While there does seem to be agreement among the major news outlets on the terminology they use, I wanted to be certain that my understanding of the terms is correct. Following are the most common of these terms:

  • Red states, Blue states ~ refers to states whose residents predominantly vote for Republican or Democratic party presidential candidates, respectively. Though news media has long used colored maps to illustrate voter preference, it wasn’t until 2000** that news media consensed on red, blue, and purple (see swing state below) to refer to party and/or conservative vs. liberal preferences.
  • Swing state ~ a state in which no single candidate or party has overwhelming support in securing that state’s electoral college votes (also referred to as battleground, tossup, or purple states).
  • Winner-take-all system ~ the candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state wins all that state’s electoral college votes (used in all but two states).

With as much emphasis as there is on the individual voter, it’s easy to forget that the outcome of the presidential race is ultimately decided by the electoral college rather than by direct popular vote. In fact, though ballots list the names of the candidates and the popular vote is tabulated by state officials and reported by news media, voters are actually choosing electors for their state rather than voting directly for a particular candidate.

The situation is further muddied by the fact that 48 states and the District of Columbia (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions) appoint their electors on a winner-take-all basis, according to the popular vote in the state. So, for example, in a winner-take-all state where the popular vote is very close, say 51 to 49 percent, all the electors from that state would be pledged to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who managed a margin, however small, over the other candidate. All this, of course, fuels the quadrennial debate over whether the Constitution should be amended to allow for direct election of the president.

There are a total of 538 electors. 535 of them are distributed among the states according to each state’s total voting membership in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, in accordance with the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia is allocated three electors, the same number as the least populous state. A candidate needs an absolute majority of electoral votes, currently 270, to be elected President.

It’s no wonder then that the two major political parties are so interested in the so-called swing states. According to a New York Times analysis of how states are likely to vote, there are 95 electoral votes associated with states they refer to as tossup states. Their current analysis also shows that neither candidate has the necessary 270 electoral votes from a combination of states that generally vote for their party and those states that “lean” more strongly toward their party than the other. What this means, especially for those of us who live in swing states, is that we are going to be listening to lots more politi-speak, from candidates and media alike, between now and election day!

**NBC journalist Tim Russert (now deceased) is credited with coining the terms red state and blue state to refer to states whose residents predominantly vote either Republican or Democratic, respectively. Before 2000, media had used colored maps to depict voter preference, but color choices and what party they were associated with sometimes changed from one election cycle to another and, it was not uncommon for media outlets to use a different coding system than their counterparts.

Posted for Jenny Matlock’s Alphabe-Thursday study of the letter “P.”

5 thoughts on “Civics 101

  1. Wow. What a perfect political explanation post.

    They should use this in civics class. I really never thought about all of this from the aspect you explained it from.

    It actually gave me a lot of clarity.

    I’m quite glad I popped in today to read your link to the letter ‘P’.

    Thank you.


  2. As a resident of one of the important swing states in the upcoming election (Ohio), I enjoyed reading about how these terms came about and what they really mean. An important civics lesson as we move into this important election season.

  3. Wanda, thank you so muich for the “Civic’s 101” class, it is more interesting, more informative, and clearly more honest than the actual election itself. — Take care and have a great day, Bill.

  4. Wanda, brava!! This is an excellent “P” post. Most people don’t even think about the Electoral College. AND they don’t think about the fact that a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election. Somehow, I don’t think this system is very fair. I want every person’s vote to count.

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