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The big news outside Washington this week has been the enactment of a “right-to-work” law in Michigan. It’s an extraordinary development because of the state’s historical status as a cradle of unionism, and it was made possible by something of a fluke: Michigan is a big blue state in which Republicans nonetheless control the governorship and both houses of the Legislature.
That dynamic – Republicans enjoying complete governing control of blue states, or Democrats enjoying the same in red states – isn’t very common, with the ideological contours of both parties clearly defined and split-ticket voting on the decline. But where it exists, there is the potential for the party in power to pass legislation that radically changes the state’s political culture – like with right-to-work in Michigan.
Right now, there are more blue states run by Republicans than red states run by Democrats. This is the product of two factors: 1) At the state legislative level in big blue states, Democratic voters tend to be packed into a relative handful of districts, often in and around cities, while Republican-friendly populations are more widely dispersed in suburbs, exurbs and rural areas; and 2) the monster Republican year of 2010, in which the electorate was so pro-GOP that the party was able to win governorships in states like Michigan and to exploit the above-described possibilities in state legislative races.
Michigan’s right-to-work law is the most dramatic example of what this dynamic can produce, but it’s not the only one. A new issue has emerged in the last few weeks, spurred on by Republican politicians in four GOP-controlled states that President Obama carried this year: changing the way electoral votes are divvied up.
Since the election, Republicans in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia have touted various plans to do away with the traditional winner-take-all electoral vote model in their states and to shift to a proportional scheme. The proposals aren’t identical. Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate majority leader wants the state’s 18 electoral votes to be proportionally divided in relation to the state’s overall popular vote, while in Wisconsin and Ohio the idea is to award the winner of each congressional district an electoral vote, with the overall statewide winner getting an additional two. In Virginia, there’s another twist; the Republican legislator calling for reform there would use a district-based system but would award the two additional electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most districts – not the statewide popular vote.
The intent of each of these proposals is obvious: to dilute Democratic strength in the Electoral College. Presidential races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania can be close, but Republicans have been shut out in both states since 1988. Ohio and Virginia have been more GOP-friendly, but Obama won them both in 2008 and 2012 – and Virginia’s steady demographic evolution figures to push the state only further from its former status as a Republican redoubt. These four states have a combined 61 electoral votes, and Obama won all of them this year. (And in 2008, before the most recent round of reapportionment, Obama went 64-for-64 in this quartet.)
While the GOP proposals in each state vary, for the sake of simplification, let’s pretend that each state adopted the most basic district-based electoral vote model – the one currently employed in Maine and Nebraska: one electoral vote per district, plus two more for the statewide popular vote winner. Under this system, what had been a 61-0 Obama sweep in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Virginia this year would have become a 37-24 Romney edge. That would have brought the overall Electoral College count from 332-206 for Obama to just 295-243 – meaning that Romney would have come within a small bunch of votes in Florida (where he lost by less than a point) of claiming the presidency, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 5 million votes.
To take it a step further, what would happen if every state in the country used a district-based system? According to the Cook Report’s Dave Wasserman, who has been maintaining the definitive election results spreadsheet, this would have yielded a 276-262 victory … for Romney. To a certain degree, this illustrates the impact of gerrymandering. But it mainly speaks to what I noted previously about Democratic populations tending to be concentrated in compact areas; it creates a real edge for the GOP when you divide the country by congressional district.
The question, of course, is whether any of these Republican-run blue states will move beyond the talking stage and actually enact electoral vote legislation. Based on what just happened in Michigan, you might assume there’s not much that could stop them – and maybe you’d be right.
But, as Jonathan Bernstein wrote this week, there are some forces that could end up holding the GOP back. One is common sense. Take Virginia and Ohio; both have voted for Obama twice, but neither can really be called a blue state – at least not yet. In a slightly more favorable national climate, Republicans could absolutely win one or both of these states in 2016. Given that possibility, would GOP leaders in these states want to risk diluting their candidate’s electoral vote strength? In these states, Republicans may well conclude that it’s just not a risk worth taking.
Of course, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (and Michigan, if Republicans there were to get interested in the idea) have been more reliably Democratic at the presidential level. So there might be less holding Republicans back there, even if the GOP has come close to winning these states in several recent White House elections. But, as Bernstein notes, enacting sweeping, controversial and nakedly partisan changes to their state’s electoral vote formula could engender a serious backlash against Republican leaders in these states. We are, after all, talking about blue states here; the Republicans who run them have to factor these sensibilities into their decisions. It doesn’t mean that they won’t ever overreach, but it means they’ll probably be selective in doing so. Would the grief they’d get for changing the electoral vote rules be worth the political price, when the end result would only affect the presidential race?
Again, given what just happened in Michigan, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of Republicans changing the electoral vote rules in blue states. Maybe they will. But there’s some reason to think it’s a battle they’ll ultimately choose not to fight – especially if Democrats and the media make a lot of noise about it.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornackiMore Steve Kornacki.
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.