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June 14, 2021

Gary Pearce: Meet the 2 percent who will pick next president

Remember the 1% – the richest Americans?

Meet the 2% – the most powerful Americans. They’ll pick the President in 2020.

They’re not billionaires. They’re not political bosses. They’re average voters, except for two things.

First, they are “truly persuadable” voters who are undecided and up for grabs in the presidential race.

Second, they live in just six states, one of which is North Carolina.

If you don’t like this small slice of Americans being so powerful, blame the Electoral College. That’s how our presidential elections work, unlike any other election for any other office.

The 2% were identified in a deep-dive polling analysis by Nate Cohn of The New York Times. He looked at a Times-Siena College survey of voters in the six states that had the closest margins in the 2016 presidential race: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

Fifteen percent of the voters in those 2020 battleground states say they are undecided in the presidential race. But, in fact, Cohn found that many of them are almost certain to vote for either Trump or a Democrat. He concluded that only 9% “showed no consistent partnership” and can be called “truly persuadable.”

Since the six battleground states have about 30 million votes total, there are fewer than three million truly persuadables. That’s less than 2% of the 150 million Americans who will vote next year. That 2% is crucial because the Times-Siena poll found that the presidential contest is essentially tied in the battleground states.

And they’re a mixed bag of voters, fitting no clearly identifiable economic, demographic or ideological profile. They’re just folks. Mighty powerful folks.

Cohn’s analysis shows why it’s so misleading to look at nationwide polls of the presidential race. As Hillary Clinton can tell you, a candidate can win the national popular vote but still lose in the Electoral College.

Even that is misleading. Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes in 2016, but only because she won California by 4.3 million votes. Trump won the other 49 states by 1.4 million votes.

Will we ever get rid of the Electoral College? Almost certainly, we’ll never pass a constitutional amendment abolishing it. We’re way too polarized for that.

But there’s another way to do it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the compact, states pass a law awarding their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. No longer would the electoral votes go to the winner in the state.

To take effect, the compact needs to be enacted by states with a total of 270 electoral votes — the number needed to elect a president. The compact has passed in 15 states and the District of Columbia, for a total of 196 electoral votes. It needs states with 74 more electoral votes.

We can debate whether to abolish the Electoral College – and whether the National Popular Vote Compact is the right way to do it. We can be sure that in 2020 the 2 %will rule.

Gary Pearce is a former political consultant. He was an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt, 1976-1984 and 1992-2000.

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