The post-mortems are over. Most Republicans now admit what everyone else knows: Romney took a beating last November. Romney didn’t just lose under relatively favorable conditions. He managed to underperform John McCain with the party’s base without successfully reaching out to new supporters.
How should the party get better results in the future? One proposal is to change the rules of the game. Romney lost because he failed to win majorities in enough states to collect 270 electoral votes. At National Review, Katrina Trinko asks whether Republicans would do better if states awarded their electoral college votes by congressional district, or the electoral college were entirely replaced by a national popular vote (NPV).
The answer to the second question is almost certainly “no”. Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. And the demographic picture is growing less favorable to them as reliable constituencies–married couples, whites, and Christians–continue to shrink. It’s theoretically possible that Republicans could win a national popular vote by improving turnout in their strongholds. But it’s more likely that NPV would shut the GOP out of the White House for good.
The plan to award electoral votes by congressional district seems more promising, partly because it would not require an amendment to the Constitution and is already in place in Nebraska and Maine. But Republicans would make a terrible mistake by pursuing this strategy, which has attracted interest in Pennsylvania and Michigan, among other states.
In the first place, the proposal is a naked attempt to rig the system to secure more favorable results. Advocates of NPV can appeal to the politically neutral principle of one man, one vote. Advocates of a district-based electoral college, on the other hand, are explicit about their goal of giving an advantage to Republicans. There’s nothing new about politicians making rules that favor their own party: the gerrymander is as old as the Republic. As far as I know, however, it’s never been seriously proposed as a basis for selecting the President.
Second, the Republican advantage under such a system could be temporary. As long as Republicans control state legislatures, they can draw favorable districts. But there’s no reason to assume that this control will last forever. Eleven states have adopted non-partisan redistricting. Others may follow their example. More importantly, Democrats could rebuild their strength in key states like Wisconsin, where they’ve recently faced setbacks (that’s what the collective bargain fight with Gov. Walker was really about). If they do, Republicans would again find themselves at a structural disadvantage.
But the main reason Republicans should reject attempts to win the game by changing the rules is that obsession with procedural gimmicks is symptomatic of a broken party. In a democracy, healthy parties pursue decisive national majorities. Sore losers try to eke out victories through electoral manipulation.
Republicans once understood this principle, which was the basis of Nixon and Reagan’s challenges to the New Deal coalition that was then in its death-throes. It was also the guiding idea of Disraeli’s construction of a “One Nation” party from the ruins of the old Tories following the Reform Act of 1832. British Conservatives spent a half-century weening themselves of their dependence on rotten boroughs. It is dispiriting to see Republicans pursuing a modern version of the same vice.