Testing the Electoral College: Question Wording Matters

Since the founding of the Republic, Americans have elected 44 men as president over the course of nearly five dozen presidential elections.  In just five of those elections, the winner of the popular vote was not also the winner of the Electoral College and thus was not elected president.  Most recently, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Donald Trump by nearly 2.8 million votes; nevertheless, Trump prevailed where it mattered – in the Electoral College. Both the mechanics and the reasoning behind this constitutional quirk are often misunderstood.  And, when the Electoral College is put to the test in a public opinion survey, the waters often get murkier.  To coin a phrase, the Electoral College has consequences, and so does the language used by survey researchers to gauge voters’ opinions toward it and the process by which we elect our presidents.

The relative rarity of a president being elected without winning the popular vote has spawned fresh survey research into the question, “How should we elect our presidents?”  Four different survey research organizations since the November election have put the question to adults or voters in different ways.  What emerges is a not-quite-clear picture of public opinion on this issue depending on how the question is asked.

Generally speaking, the shorter and/or simpler the question, the better for the Electoral College, or, at the very least, the numbers are closer:

  • Suffolk University/USA Today’s December 2016 survey of registered voters asked, “Do you believe the United States should change the Constitution so the president is elected by the popular vote, not through the Electoral College?”
    • Forty-two percent (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) opted for yes, change, while 50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} opted for no, don’t change.
  • Gallup’s late November 2016 survey recorded a huge jump in favor of the Electoral College since the question was asked following the 2012 election: “Would you prefer to amend the Constitution so that the candidate who receives the most total votes nationwide wins the election, or to keep the current system, in which the candidate who wins the most votes in the Electoral College wins the election?”
    • Adults (not voters in this case) came down almost evenly split, with 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} opting to amend the Constitution and 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} opting for keeping the current system. That is down from 62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} amend/35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} keep in just four years.
    • Immediately following the hotly-contested 2000 election, when Al Gore won the popular vote but failed to capture the necessary 270 electoral votes, 61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans favored amending the Constitution, while 35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} wanted to keep the current system.
    • Immediately following the 2004 election, the numbers were identical (61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).
    • The shift in the 2016 data can be attributed to a significant change in Republican attitudes toward the Electoral College. In 2000, 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Republicans/Republican leaners favored amending the Constitution, climbing to 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in 2004 and peaking at 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in 2012. In 2016, that number plummeted to just 19{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.


Conversely, the longer or more detailed the question language, the more respondents are inclined to support changing the system and electing presidents solely through the popular vote:

  • A McClatchy-Marist survey from December 2016 asked voters the following: “Thinking about future elections, do you think who wins the presidency should be determined by the Electoral College, where the electors or representatives from each state vote for the candidate who won the most votes in the state, OR, the popular vote, that is, the candidate who gets the most votes in the nation regardless of the state in which people live?”
    • Forty-five percent (45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) opted for the Electoral College, while 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said popular vote.
  • Similarly, a CBS News poll from December 2016 asked the following of adults: “Presidents are elected by the Electoral College, in which each state gets as many votes as it has members of Congress and can cast all of them for whoever wins in that state. Do you think we should keep the Electoral College, or should we amend the constitution and elect as president whoever gets the most votes in the whole country?”
    • Forty-one percent (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) chose to keep the Electoral College, while 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said we should amend the Constitution.
    • This is a slight improvement from CBS’s post-2000 election survey, in which 39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} favored keeping the Electoral College and 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} favored amending the Constitution.


Clearly, survey language matters.  The McClatchy-Marist & CBS polls are longer than their Gallup and Suffolk counterparts.  The number of words in each question bears this out (see above).  It’s possible that longer, more detailed explanations could leave respondents confused about which response category they preferred, resulting in the difference vis-à-vis their shorter counterparts.  However, the more detailed question language in those two surveys may in fact provide respondents with more information and paint a clearer picture for them.  Either way, what is clear is that the way in which the question is put to respondents matters in determining the outcome. And, barring more survey research into the question, we cannot know for certain where American voters/adults actually come down on this important issue, although we do know it’s not a “landslide” for either side.

Similar Articles

  • Public Release of Research: Strengthening HCAHPS Patient Experience Surveying
    read more

  • POS National Poll Release #3 – Socialist Trends
    read more

  • POS National Poll Release #2 – Israel
    read more

  • POS National Poll Release #1 – Trump Approval/Generic Ballot
    read more

  • Farm to Fork Initiative Survey Release
    read more

Public Opinion Strategies helped us to clarify what we wanted to learn and then conducted research and analysis that shed light even beyond the questions we set out to ask. They were very receptive to our suggestions, responsive to our queries, and flexible when we needed them to be.

Public Opinion Strategies has consistently offered unparalleled advice and spot-on polling that has shaped how and where we spent money and deploy key resources. Additionally, they have always been an excellent steward of limited campaign resources, ensuring we spend wisely and not a dollar more than necessary in order to get the information we need.

Robert Blizzard and Public Opinion Strategies did a great job for us throughout our successful campaign for Congress. Robert gave us accurate data, spot on analysis, and professional advice, all of which were essential to our victory.

Public Opinion Strategies is one of our go-to pollsters when it comes to testing public support for bond ballot measures and other initiative proposals. They are available to provide ongoing consultation with regard to crafting of ballot questions, public outreach messaging, and related efforts.

ACLI has worked with Public Opinion Strategies for decades, through several tough industry battles—often ones in which public opinion does not naturally fall on the side of insurers. Yet Bill and his team consistently provide invaluable strategic advice by refining our messages and helping us frame our issues in a way that makes them understandable and persuasive.

The data from Public Opinion Strategies provided important insight and informed our public awareness campaign. We sincerely appreciate their professionalism and expertise in this arena.

Nicole McCleskey and the team at Public Opinion Strategies have been invaluable to me, both during my campaigns and as Governor of the State of New Mexico. It’s not just the accuracy of their numbers, but guiding the overall strategy that makes them so valuable.

Public Opinion Strategies has been a part of our team in Missouri for more than a decade. With their data and guidance, Republicans here were able to attain a majority in the House in 2002 for the first time in fifty years, and we have been able to grow that majority to the point that we now have a record, veto-proof majority.

In my tenure at two leading business associations, facing huge and complex consumer issues, I have benefitted enormously from the objective advisory skills of Bill and his team. They do their homework, they are rigorous, dispassionate and thoughtful. Turning questions into answers is a clever tag, but it’s also an apt description of the professional talents of the firm.

I consider Public Opinion Strategies to be a part of our team. That is the way we have always worked. They have helped us to understand our needs and fashioned research solutions to meet those needs. They have helped us to meet killer deadlines by being flexible, executing rapidly, and insuring quality. Teamwork is the best way to describe it.

Accuracy, speed, and deep knowledge of key issues and public sentiment are the hallmarks of quality opinion research, and on these measures Public Opinion Strategies consistently delivers. I have had the pleasure of working with Public Opinion Strategies for more than 15 years on dozens of issues, and they are undoubtedly the gold standard.

Public Opinion Strategies’ track record of success and wealth of experience in political campaigns and issue advocacy are why they are one of the most trusted and well respected public opinion firms in Washington, D.C. Their insights and perspectives have helped to inform a wide array of public affairs activities across multiple industries.

Social Media Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com