US Election Vocabulary: Electoral college? Battleground states?

US presidential elections are not decided by the popular vote (counting the number of votes obtained nationally for each candidate). Each voter  votes for a state representative to allocate a vote for the president and vice president in what is called an electoral college.

What is the electoral college?

States send delegates to the electoral college according to the state vote - with 48 out of 50 using a 'winner takes all system'. Only in Maine and Nebraska are the delegates allocated proportionally.

The number of delegates sent to the electoral college is decided by the population of the state. Thus the largest delegations come from the most populous states: New York, California and Texas.

Most states are comfortably red (Republican) or blue (Democrat) - see here. This means  that presidential elections are essentially fought over a small number of purple or battleground states which swing between parties in different election cycles.

Ohio is the classic example of a swing state. It has voted for the victor in every election since Kennedy's victory in 1960. Traditional wisdom suggests that the Republicans cannot win without Ohio - the state which decisively swung the re-election of George W Bush in 2004. That is why presidential candidates return again and again to campaign there.

One curious feature of the electoral college system is that a candidate can win the popular vote but still become president - this was the case in the 2000 and 2016 election. The distribution of votes is as important as the raw numbers.

What is the 'ground-game'?

The ground-game is ensuring that your supporters voters get to the polling stations to cast their votes. This can involve providing transport or repeated reminder calls. It requires large numbers of local volunteers interact directly with the voters.

In 2020 the pandemic has created a new series of complications and a huge increase in postal voting. This may mean that the result in some states will not be declared on the night of the election.