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Electoral College Math

If you passed ninth grade civics, you know that electoral votes — not popular votes — decide U. S. Presidential elections. There are 538 electoral votes available. That corresponds to the number of senators (100) and representatives (435) in Congress, plus three for the District of Columbia. The actual electoral voters are local party officials who are totally unknown to people like you and me. Being named an elector is their reward for years of toiling anonymously but loyally in partisan politics.

Taken together, the group of electors is called the “Electoral College.” I don’t know why they’re called a “college” — they’re nothing of the kind — but we might as well get used to it. By the way, the correct pronunciation is e-LECT-or-al, not e-lect-OR-al. You can show your political savvy by pronouncing it correctly.

It would take too much space to explain why the Founders chose this peculiar system, which most Americans don’t seem to understand. Some people would like to see the Electoral College abolished or modified, but this has no chance of happening. The system overwhelmingly benefits the less-populous states, because each state, no matter how few citizens it has, gets at least 3 electoral votes. This means even Alaska, which is almost all wilderness, carries 0.55762% of the votes necessary to elect a President. Many of the thinly-populated states have considerably less than 0.55762% of the nation’s voters, so the electoral college gives them a lot more influence than they would otherwise have.

A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would require a 2/3rds vote by both Houses of Congress, followed by the approval of at least 3/4ths of the state legislatures. A lot more than 1/4th of the states benefit from the present system, because they have more votes than a purely proportional allocation would give them. Any amendment to make the system more democratic would therefore be opposed by enough states to prevent its passage. This simply goes to show that we’re going to have the Electoral College with us for a long time. Probably forever.

In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 271-267 (with 270 needed to win), making it one of the closest elections ever. Actually, one of Al Gore’s electors abstained in protest, so his official total was just 266. I’m giving Gore credit for 267, because I don’t think the elector would have done this had her vote mattered. Gore would have been President had he won just one more state — and he barely lost in several, most notably Florida, but also in New Hampshire, among others.

The available electoral votes get reapportioned among the states every ten years, after the census. Over many decades, this process has gradually worked against the Democrats, as Republican-leaning states in the deep south and far west continue to gain in population compared to the rest of the country. Had Michael Dukakis in 1988 managed to win the states Al Gore won in 2000, Dukakis would have been President. (Dukakis, of course, ran one of the most inept campaigns in modern times, and came nowhere close to winning enough states to be President.)

Since the 2000 election, another census has rejuggled the electoral votes, giving the Republicans a further advantage. If George W. Bush wins the same states as in 2000, he’ll win in the Electoral College by a margin of 278-260. Of the states Al Gore won, just California has gained an electoral vote, while six of Gore’s other states have lost them. Four Bush states have lost an electoral vote apiece, but seven others have gained a vote or two.

Of course, neither party is guaranteed to win the same states as last time, but the electorate is more polarized than it has ever been before. By most accounts, there are about thirty states that are essentially non-competitive. Indeed, there are eleven states (worth 62 electoral votes) that have voted Republican in every election since 1964. Another eight states (worth 60 electoral votes) have voted Republican eight out of the last nine. In total, that gives George Bush 122 electoral votes in states he can win without ever paying a visit.

No states are as dependably Democratic as the nineteen the Republicans have in their hip pockets. As recently as 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 49 out of 50, losing just Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. Richard Nixon had done the same in 1972, losing only Massachusetts. (People think of Kerry’s home state as a liberal bastion, but it voted for Reagan twice, and it has a Republican governor.) In 1988, the first Bush won 40 out of 50 over Michael Dukakis. Oh, the Democrats did carry the District of Columbia in those landslides, so that gives them just 3 electoral votes that are rock-solid.

Turning to more recent history, there’s a core group of states that have been solidly Democratic for the last several elections, and in which John Kerry currently enjoys very large leads that even Republicans would concede are insurmountable. Although there are only eleven states (plus D.C.) in this category, it includes three of the five largest prizes: California (55 E.V.), New York (31) and Illinois (21). Altogether, Kerry has at least 168 electoral votes locked in, which is just 102 shy of the number needed for election.

The remaining twenty states are commonly called the “battleground states.” If you live in one of these states, you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Kerry, and John Edwards. These are the states that both sides recognize as competitive. They could go either way. Most polls in the battleground states show either no meaningful lead, or a lead for one candidate that’s well within the margin of polling error. That’s why they call them battlegrounds.

Nevertheless, the news in the contested states is better for Kerry than it is for Bush. In every such state that Al Gore won in 2000, Kerry has consistently led in the polls (even if only slightly). In other words, there is no state that Bush lost four years ago that he can feel particularly good about winning in 2004. Kerry’s lead is weakest in Minnesota (10 E.V.), Wisconsin (10), Iowa (7), and New Mexico (5), but he is ahead in all of them. On the other hand, should Bush make inroads in the larger Kerry states, such as Pennsylvania (21) or Michigan (17), it would be a sign that Kerry’s in big trouble.

Bush, on the other hand, is already in some trouble in several states that he won in 2000, particularly New Hampshire (4), West Virginia (5), Missouri (11), and Florida (27). Whether he holds the lead in these states can change almost daily, but at this writing it looks like he would lose at least three out of the four. Bush is also vulnerable (that is, within the margin of polling error) in several Republican strongholds he once expected to win easily, such as Nevada (5), Ohio (20), Arkansas (6), Arizona (11), Tennessee (11), and Virginia (13). John Kerry is unlikely to win all of these, but he doesn’t need them. If Kerry holds Al Gore’s states, he only needs to peel away 10 electoral votes that George Bush won four years ago. As of today, Kerry stands a very good chance of doing that. We’ll have to see if that’s still true after the Republican National Convention, when Bush can expect at least a modest “bounce” in the polls.

A Presidential election is actually fifty-one separate elections that happen to be held on the same day. Nationwide public opinion polls, which are the most common kind we see, tend to obscure the state-by-state races where the election is really decided. Both campaigns have Electoral College strategists who are experts in all the different ways of counting to 270. Just look at where George Bush and John Kerry spend their time over the next three months, and you’ll have a very good idea where the battle is being fought.

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