Eliminating the Electoral College would upend presidential politics in Wisconsin

Should the popular vote rule?
wisconsin state outline with check mark made of people

Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes have put the state at the heart of the action in the race for president. But if the race for the White House were about Wisconsin’s 3.3 million voters instead, the state would likely be on the outside looking in.

The debate over the merits of the Electoral College versus moving to a national popular vote for the presidency has intensified since 2016 when Donald Trump lost nationally by nearly 3 million votes but still won the White House. It marked the sixth time in the last seven presidential elections that Republicans lost the national vote. But twice — in 2000 and 2016 — the GOP nominee still won the Electoral College.

Though there’s a continued debate over which system is best, there is an emerging consensus that a change would spark an overhaul in how presidential candidates campaign for the presidency. And Wisconsin is a perfect example of a state that would be impacted by such a change in strategy.

The state is now bombarded every four years by TV ads, presidential visits and canvassers going door-to-door to turn out voters. But Joe Zepecki, who was Barack Obama’s Wisconsin communications director on the 2012 campaign, says presidential elections determined by the popular vote would require campaigns to adopt a national focus with their advertising in an effort to reach the largest number of voters as efficiently as possible.

At the same time, Zepecki argues candidates would still want to win “purple” states to symbolically show their appeal.

“I don’t think it would be totally forgotten. But it certainly would not get the same level of intensity as we’ve seen under the current system,” he says.

Wisconsin has long enjoyed its position as one of the most influential states in the presidential race, because it’s one of the few that seems to be truly in play every four years.

The state’s electoral votes were decided by less than a percentage point in 2000, 2004 and 2016, and that’s a major reason why the airwaves are full of presidential ads each quadrennial.

The Green Bay-Appleton media market is the 67th largest in the country. Yet in the 2000 presidential campaign, it ranked No. 6 for the number of ads aired during the general election, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project. In 2004, that market was No. 7, according to the project, which is housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Election Research Center.

Wisconsin is the 20th largest state based on population. But in the run up to the 2012 presidential election, the campaigns and their allies spent $39 million on TV ads in the state, good for eighth nationally, according to a tally by Kantar Media/CMAG. And the state’s airwaves are poised to be pumped full of ads again this fall.

The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA indicated in March 2019 that Wisconsin would be one of just nine states it focused on in the 2020 presidential race, and it has committed $150 million to the effort. All told, the group is targeting states with just 127 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House because the rest aren’t considered competitive.

Doing away with the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, and prospects for that
in the near term are murky at best. So instead, proponents of the national popular vote have turned to state legislatures. By the end of 2019, 15 states and the District of Columbia had approved legislation that would dedicate their combined 196 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The provision would only kick in, however, if states with 270 votes — the number needed to win the White House — approved similar measures.

In Wisconsin, state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, has again proposed legislation that would add the state to that list. But his bill hasn’t advanced in past sessions nor did it receive a public hearing in this one.
Hebl doubts presidential candidates would spend less time and money in Wisconsin if the election were determined by a national popular vote.Further, he says, “I reject the implication that we have to do what is right [to ensure] potential revenues in Wisconsin when we should really be worried about what is right for democracy in the United States.”

JR Ross is the editor of WisPolitics.com.

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