Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

The power of getting out the vote

November 2nd, 2008, 5:28pm by Sam Wang


For those of you out pounding the pavement, manning the phone banks, and driving vans, here are some figures on how much each of those votes is worth. If that’s not you…well, why isn’t that you?

Although polling-based estimates show that the Presidential race isn’t close, one can imagine an extreme scenario of errors combined with a last-minute swing. In such an unlikely occurrence, activists would want to squeeze out every last vote.

Sadly, in New Jersey, where I live, my vote has extraordinarily little impact on the state outcome, and an even smaller effect on the Obama v. McCain win probability. However, in neighboring Pennsylvania, individual votes are worth much more. Logically, I’d want to go over there.

The power of a single vote can be quantified by asking: In a neck-and-neck race, how much does one vote affect your candidate’s win probability? As it turns out, this problem gives exactly the same result whether you are an Obama supporter or a McCain supporter. So the answer applies to all readers of the Princeton Election Consortium.

In the right sidebar, “The Power Of Your Vote” describes an individual voter’s effect on the win probability, assuming that the race is in fact a near-toss-up. In this scenario:

One vote In Virginia (power=95.5) is as powerful as 6000 votes in New Jersey (power=0.016).

One vote in Pennsylvania (power=57.9) is worth 3600 jerseyvotes.

One vote in New Hampshire (power=43.0) is worth 2700 jerseyvotes. (And giving it in massachusettsvotes would yield a disturbingly large number.)

One vote in Ohio (power=30.3) is worth 1900 jerseyvotes. However, it’s only worth about half a Pennsylvania vote. If you live in either state, you don’t need to go anywhere. Just do your work there. And wallow around in your piles of jerseyvotes.

So what are you waiting for? Go load those little old ladies into the van – gently. Then get to the polls – the real ones!

Tags: 2008 Election

14 Comments so far ↓

  • Matt

    Great work. That girl I talked to yesterday in NM who didn’t know where to vote is worth some 4000+ New Jersey votes. Wow. Thinking about all those people getting off work in Newark tomorrow, waiting in traffic, standing in line for an hour and then casting their vote… it makes that trip I made out to that rundown trailer park in the desert, driving around to find the right space, and then walking up to her door seem so much more worth it.

  • Sam Wang

    Abe Fisher and Jack Rems – The jerseyvote itself, which I used in 2004, also fluctuates. Jerseyvotes have a certain comic appeal, but I switched to using the top state for a practical reason: it’s where an activist’s time would be well spent.

    The correct unit would look like %probability change per vote. It would be nominally quite tiny. I have avoided this type unit because most people’s numerical intuitions are not able to comprehend the meaning of such small numbers.

  • Rawkcuf

    One suggestion, prepare yourself for long lines at the polls:

    Bring a folding chair, a good book and a bunch of snacks, and try to enjoy the wait.

    Go with friends, have a party! Send out for pizza. The long lines don’t have to discourage voters, we just need to go prepared to wait.

  • jeff stake

    Great work!
    What is the power of an Indiana vote?

  • Jack Rems

    I second Abe Fisher [#7 above], I’d like you to reset the Jerseyvote at 1.00.

    When I first saw the Jerseyvote, I thought it was a much simpler calculation, a measure of the relative electoral power of voters in each state regardless of polling, just EV/voter population. I’m sure there’s a table somewhere; it doesn’t change day-to-day. It does (and should) chafe us here in California.

  • le_sacre

    p.s. Check out the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

  • le_sacre

    Observer (#5), you are a bit wrong and here’s why. Not only have 7% of our presidents been elected despite losing the popular vote (a not-insignificant proportion), but the Electoral College system dramatically warps the campaign process, and places a stranglehold on what issues reach the critical dialogue of the presidential race. If candidates had to woo New York and California and Texas, they would be talking about quite different things (and certain things would barely be discussed). As it stands, not only do the few indecisive states wield undue influence on the rest of us by deciding who our presidents will be, they also completely control the agenda of the candidates and what issues are covered in the news media.

  • Abe Fisher

    After a great deal of largely fruitless consideration, it finally occurred to me today that the “power of your vote” sidebar has been kind of misleading, especially given the constant presence of “jerseyvotes” at the bottom of the list.

    In essence, since the _most_hotly_ contested state is established as 100.0 (and everything else is displayed in proportion to that value), the apparent value of a jerseyvote has swung wildly from day to day.

    Since in fact, I’m betting that the exchange rate between jerseyvotes and any specific other state has not been anywhere near as volatile, the value of a jerseyvote AS A UNIT OF MEASURE has been distorted. Yes, you can say “but if I’m in New Jersey, I want to know where best to allocate my resources and in what proportion” but you can display the information in a less misleading way.

    I’d argue that if you (Sam) are the proud holder of a jerseyvote, the most rational way to display the information is to hold jerseyvotes constant at 1.00 and then show the hotly contested states as large numbers of jerseyvotes. Otherwise the day-to-day comparison becomes meaningless.

    In spite of this, I gotta say this is still the best site for geeky polling understanding. Thanks for all the work Sam.

  • Mike

    I agree with #5. We should abolish the electoral college and the Senate. I imagine that that sounds just terrible for someone in NV or WY but we really don’t live in like Americans did in 1787. It’s wrong for the will of 30 million Californians (or however many Texans) to be thwarted by one county in Ohio or some similar travesty. If the Framers had realized how distorted the population distribution of the states would become, I doubt they would have done things this way. Obviously, a question for bigger brains, though… :)

  • Observer

    What we really need is Senate reform. That California gets the same number of Senators as, say, Wyoming, is just awful. And it distorts the legislation one can get through quite powerfully.

    In the presidential race, the ‘messed up system’ affects outcome in only very, very close elections, such as 2000. Most of the time, the national popular vote and the EV outcomes are the same winner. And that is clearly going to be true this year.

  • Clark

    Excellent reminder. Did you advertise this fact in class/on campus? While locals like yourself have to make do with a single jerseyvote, plenty of students can register at their permanent addresses in PA (or even NM or CO). While it is now too late (given absentee ballot deadlines), NJ GOTV volunteers who want to stay in state would probably do well to focus early efforts on college campuses in the future. Then again, there’s undoubtedly already a disproportionate amount of effort expended on students…

  • Scott

    At some point we need to fix this messed up system. It’s nuts that Texans (Red State) and Californians (Blue State) have to call or drive out of state and/or donate piles of money to have a meaningful say in the election of our President.

    Don’t get me wrong, parts of Nevada are beautiful but one can feel like a carpetbagger.

  • Evans

    oh… On Nov. 4 that is.

  • Evans

    well said. I’m guessing the exchange rate of jerseyvotes to calivotes is pretty even… If any readers are from the San Gabriel Valley in CA, please join us from 6am to 6pm at the Calech Y for an all-day phone bank. The goal? 20,000 calls, and hopefully millions of jerseyvotes.

    Oh, also, check barackobama.com for something closer.