The Economics Department

Electoral College Study by Mike Geruso and Dean Spears garners national attention

Thu, September 19, 2019
Electoral College Study by Mike Geruso and Dean Spears garners national attention
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

The following article originally appeared on the utecs website.

If the 2020 election is within a 1% margin, the less popular candidate has a 45% chance of becoming president, and the odds favor Republicans, according to the University of Texas Electoral College Study conducted by professors Mike Geruso and Dean Spears and undergraduate student Ishaana Talesara. The results raise questions on the manner in which the U.S. Electoral College represents the voice of the U.S. electorate.

The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 were controversial in part because the candidate who had the most votes didn’t win. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 5 electoral votes after losing the popular vote by about 540,000. And in 2016, Republican Donald Trump garnered 27 more electoral votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million.

What are the odds of this happening, especially twice in the last two decades?

“Higher than you probably think,” said UT Austin economist Michael Geruso, who — with UT Austin economist Dean Spears and economics and math undergraduate Ishaana Talesara — co-authored a paper on “inversion” elections that was recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

According to the study, “inversion” elections are very likely in close elections. Although they’ve only happened four times in U.S. history — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — the researchers report an 80% chance that another slightly less popular candidate will win the presidency in the next 60 years if elections continue to be as close as they have been in the last several decades.

“The probability of inversion is very tightly linked to the expected closeness of the race. And the last couple of decades have featured some of the closest Presidential races in U.S. history,” Geruso said. “To the extent you think 2020 will be a close race, you should be prepared that an inversion is likely. That goes for any future election as well.

In fact, the researchers estimate that if someone loses the popular vote by within 1%, or 1.3 million votes, he or she has a 45% chance of winning the election. It has nothing to do with who the candidates are, the researchers emphasize, but the trend favors Republicans, who are estimated to benefit from future inversions 77% of the time.

“Today, Republicans are more likely to benefit from an inversion primarily because each state’s representation in the Electoral College is equal to its number of U.S. Senators plus its number of U.S. Representatives, meaning that each individual citizen vote corresponds to a greater share of the Electoral College for Wyoming than for a large state like California and Texas,” Geruso said. “Because, by and large, small population states lean Republican, this feature benefits Republican candidates.”

In calculating what would happen if the two Senator votes were removed from the Electoral College, the researchers found that inversions would still be just as likely, however it would decrease the Republican advantage to 62%, restoring some partisan balance.

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