With a new lobbying effort directed at Republicans, the National Popular Vote campaign is back in Connecticut, one of the 38 states ignored in 2012 by the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
A legislative committee is expected to vote Monday afternoon to raise the concept for a public hearing, renewing a debate in the General Assembly about an interstate compact committing the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
With a genesis that some trace back to George W. Bush’s winning the electoral college and the presidency in 2000, despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore, the campaign has been viewed with suspicion by many Republicans here and nationally.
“Sometimes, we get asked, ‘Aren’t you just a bunch of bitter Democrats who can’t get over 2000?’” said Barry Fadem, the president of National Popular Vote, who made a lobbying trip to Hartford last month.
Chris Healy, a former Republican state chairman, is lobbying the bill in Connecticut this year after working on the issue in other states. He and Laura Brod, a conservative Republican who was a Minnesota House member, pitched the bill to GOP lawmakers here before the session opened last week.
On this issue, Healy and Brod are on the same side as high-profile progressive groups, such as Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
“There are good government issues here. There are political issues here,” Healy said. “It’s one of those strange issues that can make a conservative and a liberal nod in agreement.”
When the Connecticut House endorsed the interstate compact in May 2009 – the Senate declined to vote on the bill before the session ended that year – not a single Republican voted for the measure.
“I don’t think National Popular Vote engaged Republicans early in this debate,” Healy said.
The debate has moved past the results of 2000 and the three other times in U.S. history when the loser of the popular vote won the White House. Advocates today are just as likely to talk about the deadening impact on democracy of elections being won in a shrinking number of swing states.
U.S. presidential elections are now largely a series of winner-take-all elections for electoral votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Every state has an electoral vote for each member of the U.S. Senate and House. In two states, the electoral votes are apportioned by results in congressional districts.
Once states are solidly blue or red, candidates ignore them. Connecticut has voted Democratic in every presidential election since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, when both he and President George H.W. Bush campaigned here.
Healy coordinated Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in Connecticut in 1996, possibly the last time a Republican contested the state with significant spending. He said no one is served by a process that fails to engage the vast majority of states.
Undeniably, as measured by candidate visits and spending on advertising, only a few states mattered in 2012, according to data gathered by National Popular Vote.
Obama campaigned in only eight states after accepting the Democratic nomination Sept. 8, 2012, visiting each between four and 15 times. Romney made it to 10 after the Republican convention, with multiple visits to eight and single stops in two, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Including visits from their running mates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, the two presidential tickets had 253 campaign events after their conventions – all in just a dozen states.
Post-convention advertising in those 12 states was $939 million, with $523.5 million spent in just Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Another $150 million was spent in just Colorado and Iowa.
“Two-thirds of the money is being spent in five states. People are taken aback by that,” Fadem said.
Nearly 80 percent of the candidate visits were to those same five states.
Rep. Edward Jutila, D-East Lyme, the co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, is among the advocates of Connecticut joining the interstate compact.
“Anybody who gives it real thought has got to believe it would be better for everyone – except if you are in one of the battleground states,” Jutila said.
A simple idea
In concept, the interstate compact is simple:
All electoral votes from the participating states would be cast in favor of the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact would take effect only when the enacting states possess enough electoral votes to a elect a president: 270 of 538.
The arguments against relying on the popular vote to elect a president include questions about the intentions of the Founding Fathers in eschewing a direct election of president.
One thing is clear, while the U.S. Constitution creates the Electoral College, it also gives state legislatures the power to decide how its electoral votes are awarded. The winner-take-all rule is set by state laws, not the Constitution.
“If the legislature here wanted to change how to apportion the electoral votes based on a coin flip on the Capitol steps, they have the power to do that. Not a great a idea,” Fadem said.
At a public hearing before the General Assembly last year, academics and others disagreed over what a campaign waged for the popular vote would look like.
Would grass-roots organizing, which Obama used so well in swing states, come into wider use, boosting voter turnout? Or would campaigns become even more dependent on advertising dollars?
“If anyone says they know that, they are lying,” Fadem said. “No one has ever played the 50-state board game.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said he has doubts, even while acknowledging the obvious appeal of ensuring that the candidate with the most votes wins.
“When you see somebody won the popular vote but lost the election, it makes you scratch your head,” Cafero said.
But he is uncomfortable that the compact requires that Connecticut would cast its electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of who won a majority of votes in the state.
“That bothers me,” he said.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who controls whether a bill comes to a vote in the House, has gone back and forth. He voted for the bill in 2009.
“Originally, I favored it several years ago, then when I got into leadership, I started to have my doubts about it for logistical reasons,” he said. “I’ve been lobbied pretty hard to reconsider.”
Sharkey, who assumes there will be no Republican support again, said he will call a vote if there are enough House Democratic votes to pass the bill.
“It’s not my intent to stand in the way,” Sharkey said. “Personally, I’m still a little bit skeptical about it, but I’ll do what the caucus wants.”
Fadem is optimistic.
“If we do our work, I think we have a chance to put a bill on the governor’s desk this year,” he said.
Fadem said he hopes the interstate compact becomes a reality without the push of another president being elected while losing the popular vote.
He said it would be a different debate had there been a shift in Democrat John Kerry’s favor of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004. He would have won the state’s 20 electoral votes and the presidency, despite trailing in the popular vote. In successive elections, each party would have felt the sting of winning the popular vote, yet losing the presidency.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Fadem said. “We’d be done.”