What to Watch in Electoral College Debate

State GOP fighting with itself over plan to split state's electoral votes in 2012.

Last week Governor Tom Corbett and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi raised Pennsylvania's profile in the 2012 Presidential race with a plan to change the way Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes.

Mr. Pileggi would have Pennsylvania join two other states, Nebraska and Maine, in abandoning the winner-take-all system. One electoral vote would be awarded for each of the 18 Congressional districts, and the winner of the popular vote would receive 2 more.

If this system had been in place in 2008, President Obama would have beaten John McCain by a narrow margin - 11-10 - rather than winning all 21 electoral votes.

Since the 2012 Presidential race seems likely to be much closer, and the freshly gerrymandered Congressional districts will leave many Republican-held districts less competitive, it is easy to see why Mr. Pileggi likes this plan: the Republican nominee could lose the popular vote but still win a majority of the electoral votes.

Democrats are predictably dyspeptic over this scheme, but the most interesting blowback has come from within the Republican Party.

The Washington delegation from the southeastern suburbs - Charlie Dent (R-15), Jim Gerlach (R -6), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-8) and Pat Meehan (R -7 ) - have all opposed the change, and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has also come out against it.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus is said to be lobbying against the plan, State Republican Party chairman Rob Gleason is opposed, and former RNC chairman Michael Steele is also against it. Notably, Nebraska Republicans are looking at switching back to winner-take-all.

In the conservative media, writers at the National Review, the Weekly Standard and James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal have argued against the plan. If you want to get down in the weeds, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has a good list of the ways the change could backfire on the Republicans.

The scenario the southeastern House Republicans are worried about is simple enough. Under the current system, the most important part of the Democratic campaign strategy in Pennsylvania is to try to maximize turnout in Philadelphia and blue-trending southeastern Counties. The Philadelphia media market is expensive, so a large portion of statewide campaign budgets are spent there.

But under Mr. Pileggi's plan, President Obama will only need to win a bare majority in Philadelphia - a near certainty - so he will not have to spend as much money there. This will free up campaign resources to be spent organizing in the next-bluest districts, namely those of the Messrs. Dent, Gerlach, Fitzpatrick and Meehan.

This also puts the Republican state legislators who'll share the 2012 ballot with these Congressmen at risk. And unlike the House delegation, they actually get a vote on the plan. So far PA senator Chuck McIlhinney (SD-10) dislikes the plan, and Bob Mensch is one of the co-sponsors. Senator Mensch is not on the ballot in 2012.

Going forward, the thing to watch is whether 5 more  swing district GOP senators will vote against the plan. It only takes 6 defections in the Senate, or 11 in the House, to stop the bill.

The other people to watch are southeastern Republican party officials, and other party actors like committee members, activists, and media. Those are the people who will be doing the work of the campaign, and their views will matter to candidates.


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