New York: Emperor of the Electoral College

A popular myth of the moment is that the Electoral College prevents New York from deciding presidential elections. This myth is built around the fact that at the moment, New York happens not to be a battleground state.

There are two traits that make a state an important battleground: Being close to evenly divided between supporters of the two major political parties and being large. In general, about half of the large states are battleground states.

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1976 presidential election illustrated. New York was the critical state. (Image modified from source.)

The historical truth of the matter is that New York has decided more presidential elections than any other state. Over the history of the country (particularly from 1828 to 1976) New York has generally been the most important state to win in a presidential election. This was because New York has always been large, and has usually been closely divided between the parties.

Instead of preventing New York from deciding elections, the Electoral College helps New York decide elections. The distortions in power between different states caused by the Electoral College have been favorable to New York.

New York has been the tipping point state more often than any other state. New York has been critical for the winning candidate more often than any other state, and it’s been very hard to win a presidential election without winning New York. Because of the importance of courting support of New York’s voters, New York has provided more presidents than any other state, more vice presidents, and more major candidates for those offices than any other state.

It’s true that New York is no longer considered a battleground state; however, it’s also true that states like New York, with major population centers, dominate the Electoral College system.

Contender (1796–1828)

In the earliest days of the United States, political leadership was drawn disproportionately from two states: Massachusetts, the largest state in New England, and Virginia, the largest state in the South. The South had a plantation system; New England had free farmers and fishermen. Each of those two regions had a clear and distinct shared cultural identity with a common set of economic interests.

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Slavery circa 1790. 14% of New York’s population was enslaved. (Modified from same source image.)

The middle third of the country was more diverse, both culturally and in terms of economic interest. Slavery, for example, remained legal in New York until 1827.

The Electoral College system puts power in the hands of a handful of battleground states. Massachusetts and Virginia, while large, were not swing states. This meant that New York and Pennsylvania would generally be the major battlegrounds. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike understood that New York’s electoral votes were important. In every single election from 1796 to 1824, there was at least one major presidential or vice presidential candidate from New York.

Emperor (1832–1976)

In 1832, New York adopted the modern method of assigning presidential electors: A winner-take-all popular vote. For 37 presidential election cycles, New York was a large swing state that assigned a large number of electors by a comparatively narrow margin of the vote.

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The six most frequent tipping point states from 1832 to 1976.

There are many different ways to measure where the power lies in the Electoral College. One is to look for the tipping-point state, the state at the political median. New York was the tipping-point state eight times in this period. Only a few other states were at the tipping point more than once.

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The five states with the most critical power in the close presidential elections 1832–1976.

Another way to measure power is to look for critical states in close elections — critical meaning that losing the state would have lost the election. New York was critical in nine of these elections. Frequently it was the only critical state; New York’s sheer size put it in the unique position of being the only state capable of swinging an election by itself. Five times it was both critical and the tipping point.

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One last way that you can try to observe power is indirectly: How often does the state back the winning candidate? How hard is it to win without winning that state? New York voted for the winner 84% of the time, while the average state only voted for the winner 70% of the time. Because New York was both large and close to the middle of the country (in terms of political geography), New York was more powerful than any other state.

Even if we adjust for the fact that New York had the largest share of the electorate, New York has had more power in presidential elections per voter than the average state.

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The difference is more striking when we look at just 1832–1976, but it’s very visible overall. Small states rarely decide close presidential elections; large states, mostly New York, usually decide close presidential elections.

Candidates from New York

As of 2016, the Electoral College has chosen someone from New York to be either the president or vice president a grand total of twenty-one times (this includes nine presidential candidates and twelve vice presidential candidates). This is more than any other two states combined; Virginia and Texas are tied with nine each.

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Many losing presidential and vice presidential candidates also have come from New York. Major party candidates from New York do win about 30% more often than the average major party candidate, however. Candidates are not only from New York more often than other states, but New Yorkers more often win.

Review and recap

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Currently, New York is not considered a battleground state because it has shifted away from the middle of the national political spectrum — where it has been for most of the country’s history. Because it has been a battleground state as well as a large state, New York has been disproportionately powerful under the Electoral College system.

As a general rule, the Electoral College doesn’t prevent large states like New York from deciding presidential elections. Instead, it makes it more likely for large states to decide presidential elections, especially close presidential elections.

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Approximate distribution of power in competitive presidential elections, 1828–2016.

New York is now one of the “blue” states, one of the many states that can be reasonably expected to vote Democratic unless either the state changes or the party system changes, but it used to be the emperor of the Electoral College. The solid Democratic lean of New York in presidential elections may disappear as quickly as it appeared in the first place. The historical example of New York shows us exactly what goes into the recipe for a battleground state: A large state near the middle of the political (if not necessarily physical) geography of the United States.

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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