I’m writing this from an hour-long polling line on the Upper West Side, where no political races will be remotely competitive this year. The presence of so many people willing to put up with the inconvenience of a long wait to cast a vote that’s unlikely to make a difference is inspiring, but under conditions like this one my mind tends in a cynical direction, and when I go cynical I start to think about voting Republican.
That temptation comes not from the party’s position on FEMA or climate change, its willingness to force legislative cliffhangers rather than compromise, or its alertness on issues as diverse as Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the war on Christmas.
Rather, the temptation arises from this map, which shows the concentration of political influence in just a small handful of “battleground” states. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have together visited Ohio 75 times. They’ve visited New York 24 times, almost all of which were fundraisers and media appearances. The political cycle, and the issues it chews over, are calculated to excite voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — hence a focus this year on industrial offshoring and retiree health care. Political campaigns use the same big-data approaches that any clever startup or retail chain would use to segment voters and target them directly. Undecided voters in swing states have enormous leverage. The rest of us have been mostly segmented out of the process.
As much as I hope Obama will win today’s election, I’m tempted by the thought that my vote — which is practically certain to have no impact on the outcome of any election today — might be better spent strategically in making New York a slightly more competitive political arena.
You might point out that the candidates’ fundraising hauls come largely from New York and California, and so my fellow urbanites have perhaps a greater say in the formation of the political agenda than a voter in a closely-contested state. But I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump is not whispering in Mitt Romney’s ear about the need for better rail transportation between New York, Boston and Washington, or the threat to the Northeast of rising sea levels.
If New York were a battleground state, we might enjoy political spoils as lavish as any enjoyed by a subsidized Ohio farmer — and those spoils, in the form of badly-needed improvements to interstate infrastructure, would probably be better for the country than the former, since a modest improvement in the functioning of the New York City area — whose GDP is $1.3 trillion — could have an outsize impact on the national economy. At the very least, presidential candidates would be better attuned to the needs of our big cities, which are the engines of U.S. economic growth but are mostly in electorally uncompetitive states.
Of course, hoping that my vote will make a difference in the competitiveness of this state is probably as far-fetched as thinking my vote will determine the outcome of any election. In the meantime, there are more promising ways to work against the injustice of the Electoral College — like an effort to have states commit to giving their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular election.
As it turned out, I took the safer route and voted straightforwardly, for the candidate I’d gone to the polls to support.