There's been a lot of debate lately about popular vote vs. electoral college. One of the major arguments in favor of the electoral college is that it prevents a candidate from simply pandering to, and meeting the needs of those in areas with high population-density, like cities.

Using the population numbers from our current 2016 election, how would the campaigning strategies differ? Could someone really just campaign in California, New York, and other states with major cities to win?

  • To be clear, I'd like answers based on numbers and data. Answers using population density as far as states/cities/counties are welcomed as well, given that they provide a supporting argument, percentages, and/or direct population numbers. – Matt Brennan Jan 25 '17 at 16:46
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    That is more or less what Clinton did. Look at the electoral district vote for 2016. Its basically just blue around the cities and nothing else, and that got her a ~3 million vote lead. – David says Reinstate Monica Jan 25 '17 at 16:55
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    @DavidGrinberg - there are many causes for that, not all of them related to campaigning. Demographics and their political preferences are important. It's more about where she did NOT campaign that had an effect. – user4012 Jan 25 '17 at 17:00
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    We don't know what an effective strategy is because no one has ever tried to run one. It's too hypothetical. – K Dog Jan 25 '17 at 19:18
  • In this case, thee winning strategy wouldn't be based on states but access to population centers. I suppose the focus would be on large cities, the northeast, and media focused, like TV, internet, etc. – dannyf Jan 25 '17 at 23:07


There wouldn't be just one strategy. Democrats and Republicans could each choose a strategy. For example, if Democrats won every vote in the top 145 counties, they would have just over 50% of the vote and could beat the Republicans in the remaining 2997 counties (county populations from 2013). Contrast that with the 489 counties that the Democrats actually won in 2016.

Democrats won Washington, DC by a margin of 86% in 2016. If they won the top 233 counties with five sixths of the vote, they could beat the Republicans winning 100% of the vote in the remaining 2909 counties.

There are some problems with this. This is really 50% of population not 50% of the vote. More urban counties tend to have lower turnout among eligible voters and more people who are too young to vote. In some states, felons can't vote. The data is from 2013. Population is changing, shifting from rural areas to cities.


Another issue is that Democrats wouldn't have been trying to turn out voters in DC because they didn't need them. Similarly, they wouldn't have been trying to turn out voters in New York City, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles, because they were already winning those states. Republicans weren't trying to turn out rural voters in Texas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Idaho for the same reason.

It's not clear where candidates would spend their time with a national popular vote. Even with the electoral college vote, where the tactics are simpler, Donald Trump won in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But traditionally, they would have been competing in New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada--states they lost this time. Different candidates may pick different strategies, as they appeal to different voters.

Of course, in a popular vote election, Hillary Clinton might have spent more time in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. She'd have been trying to run up the vote in those states. Or she might have tried to boost turnout in Massachusetts, New York, and California. Potentially, either plan could work.

Should candidates try to motivate their base? For Democrats, that would be urban voters. For Republicans, more rural areas. But there are Republicans even in urban areas and Democrats in rural areas.

Should candidates try to appeal to undecided voters? They would be located mostly in suburbs. But they're a double-edged sword. Maybe you convince them to vote for you. Maybe you chase them to your opponent.

Currently Democrats' concentration in cities hurts them, wasting votes in the District of Columbia as well as New York and California. With a national popular vote, it would be an advantage. Republicans would have to go farther to reach their voters while Democrats could concentrate on cities. Perhaps Republicans might develop an urban/suburban strategy to replace their rural/suburban strategy.

  • Very nice answer! Very well thought out and explanatory, this is exactly what I was looking for. If the question doesn't reopen in the next couple days I will accept this answer. – Matt Brennan Jan 26 '17 at 3:38

Currently, based on Electoral Math, you only need to win 11 states with 51% of their votes to win the electoral college (California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey). Because of the vastly different cultural and political backgrounds of these states, this is harder to do than replacing some of them with more left or right leaning states, so few campaigns go for a top 11 state strategy. Typically, all but a handful of states are considered "locked" to one party or another long before election day, and a handful of "swing states" could go either way. These swing states tend to be heavily campaigned in (though candidates also swing through solidly blue or red states to shore up support, make it harder to flip them, and for campaign contributions).

As a comparison, if you won 100% of the votes (and voting rates and eligibility were consistent among states, which currently they aren't) you would only need to win the largest 9 states. However, since one vote counts the same everywhere, you still need over half the voters to win the election, not just 51% of the voters in the largest 11 states (again, assuming that voting rates and eligibility were consistent among states, winning the largest 11 states in an electoral college system would win the presidency, but you'd only need 56% of the votes you'd need to claim a popular vote victory (and somewhere near 30% of the total popular vote).

As to what the strategy would be used in a popular vote election, it would center even more around what the opponent was doing, but there are some general things that will be important:

  • Rural areas will favor the right, and urban areas will favor the left
  • Urban areas will be easier to rally in than rural areas (as there's higher population density, more people will be able to attend an event)
  • Media-oriented campaigns will be more effective, as they will reach more voters
  • Country-wide or issues-based campaigns will be more effective than more localized campaigns
  • Vote mobilization country-wide will be very important, as everyone's votes count for the same.

If I was the campaign manager for the candidate, I would be sure to visit every state roughly the same amount, hitting a new population center each time (and even hitting some rural events). I would have the candidate focus on a national message, with policies that benefit key demographics. However, it would need to react to the opponent's tactics and message. The fight becomes about the entire country, and not just a few key states.

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    Rural areas will be easier to rally in than urban areas (as there's higher population density, more people will be able to attend an event) Don't you have that backwards? Urban has higher population density. Also, Rural areas already favor right, and urban left. – David says Reinstate Monica Jan 25 '17 at 19:05
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    Also why would you visit every state? Less populous states become less advantageous. In fact the whole idea of state lines no longer really makes sense because all that matters is population numbers, not state numbers. – David says Reinstate Monica Jan 25 '17 at 19:06
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    @DavidGrinberg I swapped that mentally for that statement. Since one vote counts for once vote, any population centers matter. It'd be best to make a list of cities by population and hit them in order, but you want to be sure not to alienate any particular area or state, to make things harder for your opponent. – Marshall Tigerus Jan 25 '17 at 19:12

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