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The United States is a hugely diverse country. We have a diversity of races, religions, nationalities, politics, and ideas. But we also have diversity in our geography. We have big states vs little states, north vs south, urban areas vs rural areas, and east coast vs west coast vs "fly-over country". Unlike the popular vote which takes all that diversity, throws it out the window, and mashes everybody into one monolithic number of about 100 million, the Electoral College tries to look at the nation as a whole while still respecting our differences -- especially when there is not a lot of agreement -- when choosing our president. How so? By forcing candidates to make their appeal broader than they would need to in a popular vote election. I know a lot of people are scoffing at this and I admit that this may not have been the intent at its founding. But after over 200 years of elections the evidence shows that that is what the Electoral College system has become. Need some examples?
The Electoral College discourages candidates from pandering to specific regions of the country. In 1888, Grover Cleveland basically ran a one issue campaign that was only popular in the south. He swept that region during the election in stunning fashion. In fact in six southern states he received over 65% of the vote! The rest of the country in the north, mid-west, and west supported Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland ended up just beating Harrison in the popular vote by about 90,000 votes -- less than 1 percent of the 11 million cast. But without the votes of those six southern states, Harrison won the other thirty-two states by over 300,000 votes. Harrison ended up handily winning the electoral vote 233-168 because his appeal was to a much wider swath of the country, while Cleveland limited his to a specific area with an issue that would bring them out in larger numbers. The popular vote didn't reflect the real will of the country as much as it represented an overly zealous region. The Electoral College rewards candidates who draw votes from around the county rather than in a limited area.
In a related vein, the Electoral College forces the candidates to fight for votes rather than "preach to the choir". Why is that a good thing? It is why Barrack Obama is in Virginia talking about tax cuts and John McCain is in Pennsylvania talking about regulating businesses! In almost every state the person who gets the most votes wins all that states' electoral votes. So there is no benefit to Obama to campaign in Illinois where he is winning by 20 points or for McCain to do the same in Utah. They have those states sewn up and they move on to where the undecideds are. And there they, once again, have to make a broader appeal to reach those voters who have not made up their minds. This is in contrast to what would happen in a direct election. If the popular vote were all that mattered why would Obama, for example, spend any time moderating his views and spending a lot of money and time for some extra undecided votes when he can just stay in a Democratic heavy area, not worry about how his positions might play to the middle, and spend less time and money getting more Democratic voters to the polls? As partisan as things are now, without the Electoral College things would be much worse as candidates would spend the entire election catering to their base (or worse, the extreme wing of their party) rather than working to get a more inclusive set of voters into their tent.
The current electoral system protects minority interests and opinions from being overpowered by a simple majority, or worse, what the founders called a "tyrannical majority". In a direct election, if 55% of all voters are pro-life, for example, no candidate needs to worry about the 45% of pro-choice voters in the minority since they can win without them. However, in the Electoral College system even if the nation at large is 55% against an issue, the one state a candidate may need to win could be 55% for it. Therefore candidates must at least acknowledge the concerns of the minority rather than run roughshod over them. This can apply to other types of minorities as well, such as racial or vocational. About 13% of the country is black. Less than 2% of the country are farmers. Can you discard their opinions and needs in a popular vote election? Maybe. But that is even less possible under our current system. African-Americans make up 25% or more of the population in several states. And farmers are an important constituency in certain parts of the country. You ignore them at your own peril in the Electoral College as a minority's influence can be greater within the smaller pool of voters in individual states.
Another way the Electoral College reflects the will of our population as a whole better than a direct election is by limiting the number of viable candidates to two or three that best represent the different views of the country. A fringe candidate would have a lot of trouble winning a single state, let alone enough votes to win the presidency under our current system. (For example, in 1992, Ross Perot -- a candidate who was not that extreme at all -- won an impressive 19% of the popular vote but didn't win a single state anywhere.) Political parties know they need to find candidates that have widespread appeal in order to be able to win in the Electoral College and therefore their winners, after going through a national primary process, usually are not that far out of the mainstream. Under a popular vote election this party system falls apart. That may sound like a good thing with all the partisan rhetoric being hurled around this election season. But things could actually be worse. In a direct election why would candidates go through primaries to eliminate themselves from contention? That would become a thing of the past as everyone would decide to take their chances in the general election where all their supporters can vote directly for them. You think partisan mud-slinging is bad now? Imagine the intra- party battles that would occur if, for example, McCain had to fight not only Obama for independent voters but also Mike Huckabee for voters of his own party all the way into November! If every faction of the Democratic and Republican parties ran a candidate you could end up with maybe six major candidates running for president and fracturing the popular vote. And that's where the biggest danger lies. With so many people splitting the vote the door opens for an extreme candidate most of the country would never want leading them actually winning. One large national direct election would encourage more candidates to run, while the smaller 50 state (and DC) Electoral College elections limit it to a smaller field of more representative candidates.
These are just a few of the arguments that support our current system, but there are others. And this is not to say there aren't any problems with the Electoral College. But in a country as large as ours -- geographically and population-wise -- no one could come up with a perfect way to elect a president. The system we use now does a better job of the complicated task of reflecting the will of the people as a whole than resorting to a simple popular vote.