There's an ongoing legislative effort to abolish the Electoral College, and after every election the losers grumble about it, and then everyone forgets their complaints until four years later. This time out I became curious about whether the College has shown any consistent benefit to either party. I've been crunching other election numbers out of curiosity and thought I would continue with this question. (If you want to see the raw data just leave a comment in this article and I'll email it to you. I can save you from cutting and pasting as much as I did.)
By "benefit", I don't necessarily mean one party has to win the Electoral College without the popular vote, though that has happened (more below). Rather, I mean in each election, does a party benefit over multiple elections from this system by receiving a higher proportion of Electoral votes than popular votes. My numbers come from the Wiki articles on the elections. All facts and figures are from the period beginning with the 1856 election. I picked 1856 as my starting point because it's the first time that a Democrat (Buchanan) ran against a Republican (Fremont) in the two-party pattern that we recognize; can we really draw a meaningful red-blue map of the Adams-Jefferson race? FYI, the last time the White House was occupied by a non-Democrat or Republican was in 1848.
Figure: the Electoral College exaggerates the results of the popular vote. I included only the GOP here because including Democratic returns would make the graph too busy and a benefit to either party would in any event not be obvious from visual inspection.
The answer is interesting. Out of these 39 elections, the GOP benefited 26 times (66.7%) and the Democrats benefited 18 times (46.2%). Yes, that adds up to more than 100%, because both parties can benefit when there are third parties scoring Electoral votes (which there were in 8 of these 39 elections; I don't count 1872, which I'll explain below if you care). So in this case, the GOP definitely has shown greater benefit from the Electoral College over time than the Democrats.
Of course in a winner-take-all system (which the Electoral College is, except for Maine and Nebraska), the electoral outcome can differ from the popular vote. In fact this has happened three times, and all three times were to the GOP's benefit (to elect Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and most famously in 2000).
And now that I mention third parties, how does the Electoral College treat them? Like a baby treats a diaper, as it turns out. There have been 10 major third parties in 9 elections (the 1860 election had 4 parties getting electoral votes). I define "major third party" as any party getting at least some electoral votes or >10% of the popular vote). Only 2 of these 10 parties benefited from the Electoral College (20%, compared to the GOP's 66.7% or the Democrats' 46.2%). These two parties were Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats in 1948 (and I'm sure we're all glad it was him that benefited), and the fourth party in 1860, the Constitutional Union Party, which received only a marginal advantage. The last time a third party got electoral votes was 1968(George Wallace - again, yippee). Qualification: I don't count the 1872 election as a major third party election - they had a non-traditional party but was still two-party; the Democrats were still in a mess after the Civil War and nominated the Liberal GOP candidate (the non-traditional party). If you've read my other articles you know that I'm a big proponent of more choice - more competition - on the ballot for our vote, just like we're fortunate to have more choices at the market than citizens of other countries.
Third parties since 1856 have been only spoilers, if even that, except for the 1912 election where Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose - the defected Progressive wing of the GOP - won 88 Electoral votes to the GOP's measly 8. Wilson went on to take it for the Democrats, but this goes to show that my exhortations for the market-and-foreign policy GOP to either kick out the theocons or start their own party are not without a somewhat successful historical precedent.
So what function does the Electoral College serve? Proponents argue that it forces candidates to focus on rural and low-income areas and not hang around the wealthy population centers. and system is deliberately skewed to benefit low-population-state voters. Consequently, your individual vote in Wyoming counts 280% more toward an Electoral College vote than does a vote in Texas or California. But if you're not in a swing state - and, Wyomingites, you aren't - in terms of having your concerns listened to by the candidates, it doesn't matter, and the campaign strategists know this. Here's a nice map of what states the 2004 candidates paid attention to (credit Wikipedia); purple hands are visits, green dollar signs spending. No clovers, horseshoes or diamonds, and (surprise) no attention paid to always-red Wyoming:
Hey Oklahoma, how much did you see either candidate in the last few cycles? How about you, Texas? I know the only time we saw them in California was if the candidates were coming to a $500 a plate fundraising dinner - in 2008 McCain made repeated visits to San Francisco, and I don't think it was because he thought he could influence the voters here (in fact he never appeared in public). Notice my careful choice of the Electoral College diverting candidates' attention from both always-blue and always-red states here. If you're lucky enough to live in Colorado (a big-landholder conservative Western state but with a big urban population) or Indiana (with a unionized Rust Belt but a very conservative element in the farming areas), the candidates might actually listen to your issues. Otherwise, you're out of luck. In this campaign there were a few surprise visits - like Obama's people playing strategy mind games with McCain and scaring them by having hm go to Montana five times (Obama never had a chance there but it worked to rattle McCain's staff). But McCain never camee, because he knew you guys were in the bag for him. The only reason Montana got any attention at al was as part of a feint in a great Electoral game of Risk.
While I was running the numbers - it was notable that the lowest popular vote ever for a winner in this period was for Lincoln 1860, 39.8%. There were 4 parties running in 1860, including a Democratic party split in half geographically - that's what a country really about to have a civil war looks like. The highest vote for a winner was Johnson 1964, 61.1% (really? The first southern president elected after the Civil War? Not counting Missouri as the South). The lowest popular vote for a winner in a 2 party election was - wait for it - Bush 2000, with 47.9% (also one of 3 times that Electoral and popular results differed). The highest vote for a loser was Nixon 1960 with 49.6% (higher than Bush's winning popular vote!). The lowest vote for the loser of any two-party election was James M. Cox, the Democratic challenger losing to Harding 1920, no doubt because of men in pubs snickering at his name. Of course, it turned out that Harding sucked and voters got suckered (Malcolm Gladwell uses Harding as an interesting example of humans' sometimes faulty ability to judge character in Blink).
Finally, since 1856 the GOP has received on average 47.4% of the popular vote and 53.72% from the Electoral College, a clear benefit on average, with the Democrats receiving 45.7% of the popular vote and only 44.3% from the Electoral College, a clear disadvantage over time. Since a) the numbers don't add up to 100% and b) both numbers are higher for the GOP, by extension one can infer that third parties tend to draw more voters away from Democrats than Republicans, though with only 9 out of 39 elections, that's not a powerful prediction, and it'll be completely dependent on the nature of the third party. It's hard to argue that Bull Moose and Ross Perot hurt the Democrats more than the GOP.
In 2004 and especially 2000 there were cries from the Democrats to abolish the Electoral College. I'm not hearing it quite as loudly this time, possibly because the election wasn't close and it couldn't have mattered, or maybe because the GOP is well aware of these numbers.
In closing, I had two other questions during my digging that I'm not going to bother further investigating, but if you have an opinion, feel free to share it in the comments. Since 1856 there have been 5 presidents from Ohio and 3 from New York, but only 1 from Pennsylvania (Buchanan, and at the very beginning of that period no less). Even Massachusetts had 2. Why has PA not produced presidents? No, it doesn't have a Manhattan, but neither does Ohio. My "statriotism" is wounded here.
Second, why does American historical education largely ignore the period from Reconstruction until Teddy Roosevelt? Even well-read Americans can tell you only "Lots of factories with smokestacks, the Gilded Age, Cleveland was the only president with non-consecutive terms" and that's about it. This period is like an American Meiji era, or the U.S. equivalent to Bismarck's unified Germany, or the reign of Augustus in the New World's Rome. Why so neglected?