Yesterday’s New York Times ran an interesting article by Nate Cohn that nicely shows how counterfactual sheds light on the forces of historical causation. The article seeks to determine which factors were crucial for explaining the gap between Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s diverging performances in the Electoral College and popular vote in the 2016 presidential election.
After discussing several factors, Cohn ends up advancing a simple answer for Trump’s victory: “The Electoral College’s (largely) winner-take-all design gives a lot of weight to battleground states. Mr. Trump had an advantage in the traditional battlegrounds because most are whiter and less educated than the country as a whole.”
Notably, Cohn partly arrives at this conclusion through counterfactual reasoning, asserting that the role of battleground states was partly about the rule of chance – or what he calls “the quirks of history.”
In order to support this point, Cohn first dispenses with the claim that Trump's victory was the result of “small state bias.”
“The Electoral College isn’t just a check against regionalism. It also reflects our federal system by awarding an electoral vote for every senator and representative. The result is that small states get more sway, since senators aren’t awarded by population.”
“Wyoming, the least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population. Yet it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.”
“In general, the Electoral College’s small-state bias does hurt the Democrats. In fact, the small-state bias tipped the 2000 election. Al Gore would have won the presidency, 225 to 211, if electors were just awarded by representative, not by senators and representatives.”
“But the small-state bias was almost entirely irrelevant to Mr. Trump’s advantage. Mrs. Clinton won plenty of small states — she won seven of the 12 smallest. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, won plenty of big states — in fact, he won seven of the 10 largest.”
“As a consequence, the result would have been virtually identical if states had not received electoral votes for their senators. It would have even been the same if the electors had been apportioned exactly by a state’s population.”
Cohn then proceeds to the heart of his argument; Trump’s victory can be attributed to “the Electoral College’s most straightforward bias: The battleground states count the most.”
“Mrs. Clinton did well in noncompetitive states and “wasted” popular votes that didn’t earn her any more electoral votes, while Mr. Trump did just well enough in competitive states to pick up their electoral votes….”
“Mr. Trump won a lopsided electoral vote tally from those states by narrowly winning four of the five states decided by around one point or less: Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (Mrs. Clinton edged him out in New Hampshire). Outside of those five states, the electoral vote was basically tied, with Mr. Trump edging out Mrs. Clinton, 231 to 228 (and leading by the margin of small-state bias)….”
“….The “solid red” and “solid blue” states where Mr. Trump failed to make gains include a clear majority of the country’s Electoral College votes, population and actual votes. The regional anomaly was the Midwest, and it just so happens that in a winner-take-all system Mr. Trump’s strength in the Midwestern battleground states yielded a lot of Electoral College votes….
“But the demographics alone don’t quite do justice to Mr. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. In the end, he won the battleground states by just a one-point margin — but claimed three-fourths of their Electoral College votes.
He won four of the five closest states, winning 75 of 79 votes at stake….”
Then Cohn comes to the most counterfactual part of his essay when he stresses the issue of contingency.
Asserting that “Mr. Trump had some very good luck,” Cohn proceeds to show that Trump’s defeat of Clinton in the battleground states was hardly preordained and adds that
“There’s nothing about the distribution of Mrs. Clinton’s votes in the battlegrounds or nationally that meant she was destined to get as few electoral votes as she did.
Just take Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — three contiguous states spanning the Upper Great Lakes. Mrs. Clinton actually won the region by a narrow margin, but she won just 10 of the 36 votes at stake….”
“Ultimately, state lines are pretty arbitrary. Yes, when those lines were determined, there were reasoned considerations like population and access to rivers and resources. But statehood and state lines, often poorly surveyed in the first place, were hotly disputed in the 19th century. Many states were created in response to political considerations, especially the balance between free and slave states. In other times, it could have gone very differently.”
“Consider two of the bigger nonpolitical state boundary questions of the 19th century: the fate of the Florida Panhandle and the “Toledo War.”
“The Toledo War was a long dispute between Michigan and Ohio over a tiny strip of land along their border, which happens to include the city of Toledo. Ohio had the upper hand for one reason: It earned its statehood first, and therefore blocked Michigan’s petition — which included the strip. In the end, Congress proposed a deal: Michigan would relinquish its claim on the Toledo strip and, in exchange, would get the Upper Peninsula.”
“The Florida Panhandle and the Florida Peninsula were governed as separate regions — West and East Florida — under Spanish and British rule. They were effectively separated by hundreds of miles of treacherous swamp and forest”
“Ultimately, West and East Florida were combined into one state. This was mainly coincidental: Alabama earned statehood before the Florida territory was annexed. West Florida repeatedly tried to join Alabama, starting as soon as the state was annexed and lasting all the way past the Civil War. Many of these efforts — which included referendums, congressional petitions and direct negotiations between Florida and Alabama — nearly succeeded. But they ultimately did not.”
“If these minor border issues had gone differently, Mrs. Clinton would probably be president. The Florida Panhandle is heavily Republican: Without it, the rest of Florida votes Democratic. Both halves of the Toledo War worked out poorly for Mrs. Clinton. Not only would she have won Michigan with Toledo, but she would have also won Michigan without the Upper Peninsula: Only the full trade gives Mr. Trump a narrow win.”
“Interestingly, the same changes would have flipped the 2000 election, and perhaps the 1876 election, to the same result as the national popular vote (though I don’t have county-level results for Florida in that election). The pronounced regionalism at play in 1888 would have made it harder to change the outcome by tweaking state lines.”
“To be clear, you can also make plenty of changes that would benefit Republicans. You could reunify West Virginia and Virginia, to take an easy one.
The point is that the main bias of the Electoral College isn’t against big states or regionalism; it’s just toward the big battleground states. If they break overwhelmingly one way, that’s who wins. This is not exactly a high-minded Hamiltonian argument. There aren’t many justifications for letting a few close states decide a close national election. But that’s basically what the system does, and there’s nothing about those states that ensures they provide a representative outcome.”
These observations veer into the category of “Cleopatra’s Nose” counterfactuals, insofar as they imply that ostensibly minor factors can lead to major outcomes. They are also excellent examples of a “geographical” counterfactual that emphasizes the causal power of physical space. (I posted a comment a while back on the excellent book and TV series, How the States Got Their Shapes). To be sure, Cohn would certainly deny claiming that Clinton’s defeat was the “fault” of where state borders were set in the 19th century. However his “what ifs” are useful for helping to determine the relative weight of the many factors that explain the 2016 election’s outcome. Counterfactuals, he shows, are critical for understanding causation.