So you’ve decided to become the President of the United States of America. But you don’t want to work too hard. How do you get to the Oval Office by doing the least amount of work?
The US has one of these elections every four years, and they sound at first like they’re just direct democratic elections; that people in the US vote and then whoever gets the most votes wins. Our neighbor to the south, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, elects its President in that way. But the US Constitution was written to make the Presidential vote a semi-democratic election. Or more accurately, several different elections.
On every Presidential election day since 1964, 51 different “states” all have their own election for the President. The winners of these statewide elections (49 of the 51 are winner-take-all) then are assigned a proportion of electors out of the total pool of 538 electors. The number of electors assigned per state is based on population, and since US population is very unevenly distributed across all 51 “states,” you get more done visiting some states than others.
With 538 electors you need a simple majority (270 electors) to win. If you win 11 states, you get that.
California (55), Texas (38), Florida and New York (29), Illinois and Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Georgia and Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), and New Jersey (14). If you concentrate completely on winning those 11 states, to the complete avoidance of all the other 40 elections, you win.
And the really fun thing about those 11 states is that most of those 11 states (all of them except Georgia) have been the highest electoral prizes since the 1964 election. Georgia moved into the group in 1992, so the last six US Presidential elections have all required doing well in these 11 states. People running for President commonly visit these states because these states matter more than other states (sorry, other states).
These 11 states also do a good job of incorporating the largest concentrations of urban-living people in the US; 9 of the top 10 and 16 of the top 20 largest cities in the US are in these 11 states. So if you have a platform that sounds good to urban-living Americans, you will probably do well.
The problem is that it’s somewhat tough to win all 11 of these states. The Cook partisan voting index is one of several metrics used as a way to indicate how much a state leans towards Democrats or Republicans. And these 11 states show quite a bit of variation, from states that are strongly Democratically-leaning (New York, California, Illinois) to states that are strongly Republican-leaning (Texas, Georgia) to states that are somewhere in the middle. The last Presidential election wherein someone won all 11 of these states was the devastatingly-bad-for-Democrats 1984 election, in which Reagan got 525 (!!!) votes to Mondale’s 13.
So you probably can’t win all 11. To make up for your losses requires you to win a few more.
Option 1: Take all 12 of the light blue options and pick 2 of the 4 dark blue options. So carry all of California (55), Florida and New York (29), Illinois and Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), New Jersey (14), Virginia (13), Washington (12), and Massachusetts (11). And then among Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin (10), pick 2 to win.
One thing making this easy is that five of these states (California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York; 125 electors) are states which lean so far Democratic that they might vote for a bowl of cereal if that cereal is Democratic, so you might have to only actively campaign in 8 of the light blue states and 1 of the dark blue states.
The most difficult of these to get is North Carolina; Obama didn’t in 2012, but he did in 2008. So Option 2: avoid North Carolina, but win all four of the dark blue options (and Missouri is almost as difficult to turn Democratic as North Carolina is).
This requires getting more states, because California, New York, and Illinois all being strongly Democratic is a bigger elector loss than Texas and Georgia being strongly Republican. So you have to win all of the light red 19 states and then pick 2 of the 6 dark red states. So win all of Texas (38), Florida (29), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Arizona, Indiana, and Tennessee (11), Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin (10), Alabama, Colorado, and South Carolina (9), Kentucky and Louisiana (8), and Oklahoma (7). And then of 6 worth 6 electors, pick 2: Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah.
Similarly to the previous image, several of these states lean so far Republican that they might vote for a loaf of bread if that bread is Republican. These solidly Republican states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah; 152 electors) might almost be ignored completely in campaigning. Then winning the election just requires convincing 8 states (Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin) to give you their electoral votes for a total of 277
So in a 2016 Presidential election that is focused on campaigning in as few states as possible, Democrats and Republicans both want to focus on campaigning in 8 states: Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin. The other 43 “states” are either too polarized to be really worth campaigning in, or are too few electoral votes to be the best use of time.
So if you live in those 8 states you have a higher than normal probability of seeing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the next 5 months. Tell them the ODeck said hello.