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How is it determined who wins a state? Is it strictly based on the popular vote within that state, or is it more complex, like each state has its own electoral college type system with certain geographic subregions winning a set number of votes if the candidate wins in that subregion?

I always assumed it was just based on total popular vote within the state, but during an election when they zoom in on a state they always show the individual counties colored red or blue. Do these county-level results actually mean anything, or are they just interesting to look at?

And do all states work the same basic way?

  • Neither answer explicitly says this, but each state can determine for itself what rules to follow. That's why two states are different than the others. – Bobson Jul 31 '16 at 4:52
  • Some states have enacted legislation allocating their electors according to the national vote, to go into effect when a percentage of states agree to join in. – user3344003 Aug 2 '16 at 4:37
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It depends if you're talking about Maine and Nebraska, or every other state.

In most states, the county-level maps are just so people can see what areas of the state supported which candidate. The entire slate of electors goes to whoever has the most votes in the state, even if every single one of those votes was cast in a single city. County-level results are like when newscasters report support for candidates by demographic (based on exit polls): it gives viewers more information about who's voting for which candidate, but as far as the results go it doesn't matter.

In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes aren't winner-take-all. They give one electoral vote per congressional district a candidate wins (including two EVs for whoever has the most statewide votes, because there are two senators). County results don't matter there either, but congressional district results do.

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In 48 of 50 states, it is a simple "winner take all" system. The candidate with the largest number of votes in their state receive all the electors from that state.

Nebraska and Maine are the weird ones. They currently use the Maine-Nebraska system, in which electors are determined regionally. Nebraska (for example) is split into 3 regions, and each region's vote is totaled separately. So it's possible for 2 electors to be Republicans while 1 is a Democrat.

News casters will often show maps by county. Why? Probably a couple reasons:

  1. Results are actually tallied at the county level and then sent to the state government. This is also why you often hear that the newscaster saying "X wins [the state] with Y counties reporting" - not all counties have reported their votes yet.
  2. Tactically, parties are organized (and often operate) at the county level. If a county votes contrary to what a party expects, it can indicate a serious problem for that party. People who are really active in their state or local politics may also want this level of detail.

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