Somehow I didn’t realize until this election year that the Republicans and Democratics don’t have exactly as many delegates for their nominating convention as there are electors in the electoral college. There are 538 electors (found by adding the number of reps and senators from each state, plus three for D.C.). But the Democrats have over 4000 delegates for their convention, the Republicans almost 2500 (I’ve gone with ballpark figures here because the actual figures seem to be in flux).
Nevertheless, the number of delegates is approximately proportionate to the number of electors, at least once you ignore delegates from territories (which get no electors but which have delegates in the Democratic Convention). My quick calculations for the D’s (I was too lazy to do it for the R’s) showed that the percentage of delegates and the percentage of electors from a state never differed by more than one percentage point.
That means that there’s still room, in future elections, for one or both parties to alter their convention rules to game the electoral college. The basic strategy would be to put extra weight on states that could easily go either way in the general election, and to put minimal weight on states that are clearly in one camp or the other. For example, it would make sense (for both parties!) to reduce the number of delegates allocated to California, which will almost assuredly go Democratic, and also to reduce the number allocated to Texas, which will almost assuredly go Republican. The delegates should be reallocated to states like Ohio and Florida, which have demonstrated their willingness to go either way.
Note that it does not make sense to give more weight to a state that your party “owns,” because those electors are essentially yours anyway. The Democrats will probably get California regardless of their nominee, so Californians’ opinions are not very informative in choosing the candidate with the best likelihood of winning the general election.
Now, why haven’t the parties already done this? One answer is that it would seem undemocratic. But that doesn’t really fly, because (a) the electoral college itself is undemocratic in some sense, yet both parties now allocate delegates approximately in line with the college’s electors; and (b) the Democrats have a large number of super-delegates (about 20% of the total) who are free to vote however they want, regardless of primary and caucus results, and the Republicans have a smaller number of delegates with similar freedom (though they aren’t usually called “super-delegates”).
The existence of super-delegates (or their Republican equivalent) points to another answer: the parties already have a mechanism for incorporating strategic considerations. Delegates not bound by the states’ primaries or caucuses can throw their votes to candidates favored in those states that should strategically have more weight. But why not change the allocation of regular delegates so that it will already reflect good electoral strategy? Then you can let the super-delegates focus on other considerations that are not as easy to include mechanically.
A third possible answer is that the parties have other purposes for their delegates. The Democratic Party (and maybe the GOP) allows its delegates to determine its national party platform – which makes sense of the otherwise bizarre decision to grant delegates to territories that cannot vote for president. But why not simply have a different set of delegates for that purpose? Yes, it would be complicated – but the status quo is also mindbogglingly complex for the average person. In general, the parties don’t shy away from complex strategies that will improve their electoral odds; consider, for instance, the widespread practice of gerrymandering.
So what gives? Are there dollar bills on the sidewalk in the presidential market?