Electoral College holds potential perils

Posted: Tuesday, November 07, 2000

One positive thing that has come out of the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush going down to the wire is that it has force-fed the American electorate on the existence of, and potential mischief involved in, the Electoral College.

Although there was more attention paid by the press and television this time around to the competition in specific battleground states, voters once again were exposed to a steady diet of national polls right up to Election Day professing to say who was ahead in the popular vote, as if it was the decisive factor, which it is not.

Instead, that creaking Neanderthal, the Electoral College, requiring a candidate to win a majority of its 538 electoral votes (270) to be elected, continues to be an accident waiting to happen. Three times in the nation's history, the winner of the popular vote Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876, and Grover Cleveland in 1888 failed to obtain an electoral-vote majority and lost.

The popular vote matters only state by state, because the candidate who wins it gets all of each state's electoral votes, except in Maine (four votes) and Nebraska (five), which allocate electoral votes by congressional district.

In the face of all the 11th-hour propaganda and self-serving polls emanating from the campaigns, it is wise to remember and adhere to the sage counsel of the late John Mitchell, the Richard Nixon campaign manager, attorney general and Watergate convict who memorably intoned: "Watch what we do, not what we say."

Where Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush went in the final days were the best guides to the real shape of the race. As their strategists strove to piece together the 270 electoral votes, they necessarily skipped the states where they were either safely ahead or irreparably behind, focusing on those that remained toss-ups or had to be defended against a serious challenge.

It's customary for candidates to say for public consumption that they are not writing off any state, but as a practical matter that is precisely what they do in the homestretch. That's why you didn't see Al Gore in dependably Republican Indiana in the last days, or George W. Bush in Massachusetts.

If the popular vote were king, the candidates could simply spend their time shuttling from New York and Pennsylvania to Texas and California. Like the infamous Willie Sutton, who said he robbed banks "because that's where the money is," presidential candidates without the existence of the Electoral College would be lured to the mega-states even more than they are today.

Instead, the perceived closeness of the race obliged both candidates to try to nickel-and-dime their way to election by courting voters in states with few electoral votes at stake as well as the vote-rich ones. Thus, both Gore and Bush were in Iowa (seven votes) and West Virginia (five) states won by Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 in the last days.

In comparisons with previous cliffhanger elections, this one was matched up most frequently with the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, which also went down to the wire. But so did Nixon-Humphrey in 1968 and Carter-Ford in 1976. Where they went in the final week measured the state of the race.

Even in Nixon's landslide victory in 1972, where rival George McGovern went in the closing days of the campaign traditional Democratic strongholds like Oregon confirmed his desperate plight. In 1984, the Ronald Reagan forces were focusing at the end on Walter Mondale's home state of Minnesota, so certain were they of their man's re-election. Mondale salvaged it, but it was the only state he won.

One politician rooting for a split decision between Gore and Bush one winning the popular vote and the other the electoral vote was independent Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. He told voters in the final days of the campaign that such an outcome would force the two major parties to do something about it. But the losses of past popular-vote winners Jackson, Tilden and Cleveland failed to do in the Electoral College, and without a public outcry it's never likely to happen.



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