In 48 of the 50 states, presidential electors cast their votes for the winner of the state’s popular vote. Maine and Nebraska are the outliers to this winner-take-all approach and instead split their electoral votes. Both states allocate two electors for the statewide popular vote winner with additional electors allocated based on the presidential candidate who wins the vote in each congressional district.
The Maine and Nebraska model allows for electoral vote splits impossible in other states outside of faithless electors. Each state had one electoral vote split as of the 2016 election. In 2008, Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District went to Democratic nominee Barack Obama as the rest of the state went to Republican nominee John McCain. Republican candidate Donald Trump won the 2nd Congressional District in Maine during the 2016 election, while the remaining state votes went to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The possibilities for vote splitting raise the question of how the Maine and Nebraska model would have impacted past elections. We used data from The Federal Register, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, and Daily Kos to determine how this model would have changed presidential elections from 2000 to 2016. While campaigning may have been different under this system, the results reveal regional trends in national elections.
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Election of 2000
The 2000 presidential election resulted in a narrow victory for former Gov. George W. Bush (R) over Vice President Al Gore (D). Bush’s 271 electoral votes edged the 266-vote haul by Gore following a contentious recount in Florida. Gore won the national popular vote, while Bush won the popular vote in 30 of the 50 states.
Under the Maine and Nebraska model, the drama that unfolded in Florida would likely not have emerged. Bush won 225 congressional districts and Gore won 209 congressional districts. With the 30 statewide victories, Bush would have garnered 285 electoral votes to 252 for Gore. The count is one electoral vote short due to incomplete data from Florida’s Second Congressional District.
Bush’s expanded victory is due largely to electoral votes from Republican districts in Democratic states. His campaign would have gained 18 electoral votes in California, 7 electoral votes in Michigan, 10 electoral votes in Pennsylvania, and 4 electoral votes in Wisconsin. Gore’s gains in Ohio (8 votes) and Texas (10 votes) are offset by Republican gains in California (18 votes).
In Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon, Bush won more congressional districts than Gore but Gore won the statewide vote. The electoral votes of 15 states and the District of Columbia would not be altered under the congressional district system. These totals exclude Maine and Nebraska as their votes remain constant through this reimagination.
Election of 2004
The 2004 presidential election resulted in a wider margin of victory for President George W. Bush against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Bush won 286 electoral votes to 251 electoral votes for Kerry. Kerry won 19 states to 31 states for Bush, an increase of one state compared to the Republican haul for 2000.
The reimagined version of the 2004 presidential election ends with a sizable Electoral College victory for the incumbent. In this model, Bush wins 319 electoral votes to 219 votes for Kerry. The Republican campaign wins 257 congressional districts, representing a 32-district increase over the previous election.
California’s current role as a Democratic stalwart would have been brought into question with the Maine and Nebraska model. Kerry’s 55 electoral votes in the actual election turned into 31 Democratic votes and 22 Republican votes in the model. The Bush campaign also benefits from Republican districts in Democratic states like Illinois (9 votes), New Jersey (6 votes), and Wisconsin (4 votes).
Kerry’s statewide victories in Michigan and Minnesota are offset by congressional district majorities in each state for Bush. The only Republican state where Kerry won more districts than Bush is New Mexico. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia do not change their votes under the model.
Election of 2008
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) won the 2008 presidential election handily against Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Obama garnered 365 electoral votes and McCain won 173 electoral votes. The Democratic campaign won the national popular vote and 28 states on the way to victory, essentially flipping the Republican advantage from the previous two elections.
Obama remains victorious under the Maine and Nebraska model, though his margin of victory is reduced. Under the model, Obama receives 301 electoral votes to 237 electoral votes for McCain. The margin of victory remains comfortable due to Obama’s advantage in the congressional district count. Obama won 242 congressional districts in the election, while McCain won 193 congressional districts.
McCain’s higher electoral vote tally comes from Republican congressional districts in Democratic states. Using the Maine and Nebraska system, McCain would have won a majority of districts in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania despite statewide victories by Obama.
Democratic gains in districts in California, Illinois, Michigan, and New York offset these Republican district wins. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia did not see their votes change from the actual election to the simulated election.
Election of 2012
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is the biggest beneficiary of the Maine and Nebraska model. In the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama (D) won re-election against Romney by an electoral vote of 332 to 206. Obama won the national popular vote and he won 26 states compared to 24 states in 2008.
The Maine and Nebraska model flips the presidency from Obama to Romney, the only occasion when the outcome changes among the last five elections. Romney wins the Electoral College with 277 votes to Obama’s 260 votes in the model with Florida’s 7th Congressional District outcome unclear based on available information. The Republican candidate’s victory relies on Republican strength at the congressional district level. Obama’s 49-district margin in the district count changes to a 20-district margin for Romney.
Obama’s 2008 victories in Indiana and North Carolina gave way to Romney wins in each state. A Romney win in the model relies on district level victories in states that went to Obama in 2008 but Bush in 2000 and 2004. Republicans increased their district-level victories in Florida and North Carolina in addition to taking the statewide votes.
The Romney campaign also benefits from congressional district majorities in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia despite Obama statewide wins. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia do not change their votes in the model, including 12 Republican states. The model’s outcome for Romney depends on a return to Republican dominance at the district level along with continued firming of blue and red state identities.
Election of 2016
Donald Trump’s (R) victory in the 2016 presidential election gave the Republican party its largest electoral vote haul since 1988. Trump won 304 electoral votes to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), who received 227 electoral votes. Trump was able to win 30 states including key Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin that previously went to Obama.
Trump remains victorious in the 2016 presidential election in the model with a smaller margin in the Electoral College. Trump wins 292 electoral votes and Clinton receives 246 electoral votes using the Maine and Nebraska system. The Republican candidate’s victory in reality and in the model depends in part on improving on Romney’s success at the district level in 2012. The Trump campaign won popular votes in 232 congressional districts and Clinton’s campaign won 203 congressional districts.
The narrowed margin between Clinton and Trump can be attributed to the campaign reducing Republican district wins in Democratic states. Trump won a majority of congressional districts in Minnesota and Virginia, a decline compared to five states for Romney and six states for McCain that fit this mold. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia did not change their votes in the model.