An Electoral College Prep Class Instead of Running a National Campaign for President, Candidates Must Run 50 Parallel State Elections

Article excerpt

RIGHT NOW President Bill Clinton holds a commanding lead in public-opinion polls that translates into a far bigger advantage - perhaps as high as a 4-to-1 margin - in the Electoral College, the population-based state tally that determines the eventual winner of the presidential race.

But professionals in both parties agree that the Clinton lead will diminish in the next several months. And an examination of the Electoral College map reveals an opening for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in the fall, even if it isn't widely recognized now in the spring.

The bottom lines: Republican hopes of winning the White House rest on consolidating and carrying the states where they have built considerable strength since 1968. Democratic hopes of winning require Clinton to win a lot of normally Republican states.

With the end of the California primary, the 1996 presidential campaign now completes a significant transition, ending the phase when a number of individual states provide tests for a field of candidates and entering an entirely new, higher-stakes phase.

Handful Of States Hold Key

A quick viewers' guide for watching the fall campaign unfold: Look for heavy travel through Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. Clinton and Dole will stop in California several times.

If things are rough for Clinton, he'll touch down in Tennessee more than once. If things go sour for Dole, expect added trips to Florida.

With the campaigns moving to Electoral College strategies, the struggle enters a kind of final round, when a handful of big-population states hold the key to the White House.

Major media outlets will still report public-opinion polls, but the election will be determined by electoral votes, awarded state-by-state on a winner-take-all basis.

The value of each state is determined by adding the number of its House and Senate seats - a calculation that gives Massachusetts 12 electoral votes but Rhode Island only four.

Already the top campaign planners for both Clinton and Dole are leaving their winter strategies behind, girding for a close election and concentrating less on the popular vote and more on the Electoral College.

Though there is an inevitable correlation between the two, the Electoral College requires a peculiar combination of keeping an ear to public sentiment and an eye to the map.

"The effect is that instead of running a national campaign, you are running 50 parallel state elections," said Alfred J. Tuchfarber, director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati.

"A campaign does things differently in each state because they know that what plays real well in South Carolina isn't going to play the same way in Ohio and California," he said.

General-election strategies are like French pastries: delicate, many-layered, sensitive to climactic change, quick to grow stale.

They are also vulnerable to collapse.

The Third Party Factor

These plans will appear especially half-baked if there's a strong third-party candidate in the race - especially one who plausibly can capture some states.

Ross Perot took no states in 1992, but George C. Wallace won five state s and 46 electoral votes in 1968.

Dole begins the drive to piece together 270 electoral votes, while behind in the polls but nonetheless in a reasonably strong position. A dozen states have voted Republican the last seven presidential elections, providing the GOP with a base of 73 electoral votes.

If Dole is able to retain that base and add the dozen states that have voted with the Republicans in six of the last seven elections, he can begin with 238 electoral votes - just 32 short of victory.

"The Republican base is so strong, and the Democratic Party has collapsed in the South," said John Morgan, a Republican specialist on the demographics of politics. …