Ten Miles Square


December 13, 2012 11:36 AM What’s With Virginia Republicans?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Yesterday I said that it’s highly unlikely that states will actually adopt the “Pennsylvania plan” in which Republicans take advantage of GOP unified government in states which vote for Democrats in presidential elections to change the electoral vote allocation in those states, either to a district scheme (like the Maine/Nebraska system) or a proportional plan.

So as soon as I posted that, Dave Weigel reports that a Republican state senator from Virginia is pushing a district-based allocation there (and apparently it’s spread to Ohio, too).

Well, we’ll see.

As Steve Benen points out, Virginia has only gone to the Democratic presidential candidate three times in the last 60 years. It’s even worse than that, however: in both 2008 and 2012, Virginia was still more Republican than the national tipping point. Basically, if the nation had moved five points toward Romney (with current rules and uniform swing), Virginia would have gone Republican, with Obama winning 272-266. As it happens this time around, either Pennsylvania or Colorado was next up, with either of them giving Romney a win. But wait! If it was neither PA or CO but next in line New Hampshire that flipped, Romney wins 270-268…and if Virginia had adopted the district allocation scheme, Obama gets four or five of their 13 electoral votes and wins the election.

The same thing, by the way, with Ohio, which is usually slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole. In the election we actually had, a district or proportional plan in Ohio would have given a few meaningless votes to Romney, but in a closer election Obama would be the one benefiting from the split.

If Republicans could force a district plan across the whole country, they would benefit. But doing it in selected states is extremely risky.

So what’s happening in Virginia?

One possibility, the one that Benen draws out, is that Republicans are just very pessimistic there; they believe that soon it will be a solid Democratic state, and so they want to lock in rules that will work for them in those circumstances before they get a chance.

A second possibility is that Virginia Republicans, or at least some Virginia Republicans, are very stupid and do not realize that their partisan hardball is very likely to backfire.

And a third possibility is that Virginia Republicans have no intention of doing this, but that one state senator figured he could get some mileage out of proposing it.

My bet is on door #3. But who knows? I guess we’ll see what happens, but I’ll stick with what I said yesterday: I strongly suspect nothing will happen anywhere on this one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Justin on December 13, 2012 3:36 PM:

    It's probably worth pointing out that if all 50 states followed Congressional gerrymandering, Romney would be president (and, indeed, the election would have been but a formality).

  • LaFollette Progressive on December 13, 2012 5:56 PM:

    I hope you're right about this plan backfiring, but I don't really understand how that would happen. Blatant, absurd gerrymandering basically never backfires. Effectively re-engineering the Senate to require super-majority rule didn't backfire. The New York State Senate has been giving the GOP a near-permanent majority despite badly losing the popular vote for as long as anyone can remember. People complain about the unfairness of these situations, but they never seem to change for the better.

    All the centrist pundits will be briefly upset about this sort of hardball, but it won't last. Republicans will vote for Republicans and the tiny number of true swing voters will choose based on who they want to win, not based on punishing the Republicans for playing hardball. The rules will allow the GOP to win the Electoral College without a popular majority, and the conservative media will talk about how proper and Constitutional the whole process is.

    Before long, it becomes the new normal.

  • fry1laurie on December 13, 2012 5:58 PM:

    If Ohio would have done that, it would have given 12 of it 18 electoral votes to Romney, despite Obama winning with 50.1 percent of the vote. Think of the howls of protest this would bring in any state which gave the majority vote to one, but its E-votes to the loser.

  • Anonymous on December 14, 2012 9:58 AM:

    "A second possibility is that Virginia Republicans, or at least some Virginia Republicans, are very stupid"

    Ockham's Razor?

  • N.Wells on December 14, 2012 11:25 AM:

    I'm with LaFollette Progressive: the plan sort of floated in Ohio was to award electoral votes by winners in each congressional district. (The republicans also talked about doing something along those lines in their primaries, as a way of opening the door to doing in Democrats in the national election.) We are sufficiently gerrymandered in the Republicans' favor that republicans got all but four out of 16 congressional seats, way out of proportion to their actual 52.5% of the total popular vote.

    It would be great if all states awarded electoral college votes in proportion to their popular vote totals (the ongoing effort to have states switch once a sufficient number of other states make a similar commitment is great). It would be even better if we simply abandoned the whole electoral college mess and just went with the national popular vote. However, until then, permitting the worst of gerrymandering to control presidential vote outcomes is a horrifying surrender to a blatant and unprincipled attack on democracy.