Just a Reminder: The Most Important State on Election Day Is California


The outcome here is nearly certain. There won't be any Tuesday-night suspense. But the winner still gets 55 electoral votes -- a fifth of what's needed for victory.

Electoral college map.png

Princeton University

On the eve of Election Day, all eyes are on the swing states, where they've been for some time. So long, in fact, that the average American could be forgiven for forgetting that Ohio and Florida aren't the places with the most power to choose the next president of the United States.

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney vie to win 270 electoral votes, the state that matters most is California. The Golden State and its 37.7 million residents confer 55 electoral votes -- three times more than little Ohio, which would suffer through fewer months of awful campaign ads if only its voters would stop changing their minds about whether they want to cast red or blue ballots.

Texas is the second-most important state in this year's election. It'll add 38 electoral votes to Mitt Romney's tally. If he improbably lost the state, where he's leading by roughly 17 points, there's no way he'd win the election. It's even more important to him than Florida, with its 29 electoral votes. Florida is tied for third-most important with New York, which also confers 29 electoral votes. Don't let the fact that Romney spends more time trying to win Florida fool you into imagining that it matters more than Texas. It's just that Romney can win the Lone Star State without trying.
Here are the states ranked from most important to least important in presidential elections, along with their electoral votes:

California - 55   
Texas - 38
New York - 29
Florida - 29
Illinois - 20
Pennsylvania - 20
Ohio - 18
Michigan - 16
Georgia - 16
New Jersey - 14
North Carolina - 15
Virginia - 13
Washington - 12
Massachusetts - 11
Indiana - 11
Tennessee - 11
Arizona - 11
Missouri - 10
Maryland - 10
Wisconsin - 10
Minnesota - 10
Colorado - 9
Alabama - 9
South Carolina - 9
Louisiana - 8
Kentucky - 8
Oregon - 7
Oklahoma - 7
Connecticut - 7
Iowa - 6
Mississippi - 6
Arkansas - 6
Kansas - 6
Utah - 6
Nevada - 6
New Mexico - 5
West Virginia - 5
Nebraska - 5
Idaho - 4
Maine - 4
New Hampshire - 4
Hawaii - 4
Rhode Island - 4
Montana - 3
Delaware - 3
South Dakota - 3
Alaska - 3
North Dakota - 3
Vermont - 3
Washington, D.C. - 3
Wyoming - 3

I've listed these so that you can marvel at California's clout. It matters five times as much as Arizona. It matters more than Florida and Ohio combined. A candidate who wins California can lose West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, D.C., and Wyoming ... and still be ahead. And deservedly so. If you listed the 10 most populous cities in the United States, California would appear three times -- Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose -- and neither Ohio nor Florida would make the list. If you were to list the top 15 cities, California would have four of them, Texas would have four too, and Florida and Ohio would have one each (Jacksonville and Columbus). California cities bigger than Cleveland include Oakland, Long Beach, Sacramento, Fresno, and San Francisco, along with the four bigger cities mentioned above.

The GOP candidate won California in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1988, but hasn't won it since. Bill Clinton won California in 1992 with 46 percent of the vote. (Ross Perot won 20 percent of the California vote that year!) In 1996, Clinton won 54 percent of its voters. Al Gore won 53 percent of the California vote in 2000, John Kerry won 54 percent, and Barack Obama won 61 percent in 2008. When Obama wins California this year, he'll be a fifth of the way to 270.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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