A Layman's Guide to U.S. Presidential Politics

By Bell, Jeff | The International Economy, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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A Layman's Guide to U.S. Presidential Politics


Bell, Jeff, The International Economy


How a behind-the-scenes Washington political strategist sizes things up. Hint: Watch Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Since America's two-party system emerged in pretty much its present form in the election of 1828, the Electoral College has elevated the winner of the national popular vote 41 of a possible 43 times. One of the two times the Electoral College was "wrong," in 1876, it was not so much the Electoral College as the Republican-controlled Congress which pried away the presidency from Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden, as part of a Byzantine deal to bring Reconstruction to an end. The last time, or (depending on how you score 1876) the only time, the Electoral College differed from the popular vote was in 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College while being edged out by Democratic President Grover Cleveland in the popular vote. In the subsequent twenty-seven consecutive presidential elections, the Electoral College winner has always been the candidate who finished first in the popular vote.

Given this history, it's no wonder most eyes glaze over at the very mention of the words "Electoral College." A relic of our founders' reservations about direct democracy in the late eighteenth century, a time when no such thing had ever been achieved beyond the confines of a city state, the Electoral College today is not a deliberative body, but a way of apportioning 535 voting units to the 50 states according to the size of their delegations to Congress, plus three electoral votes to the District of Columbia, the nation's capital that sends no voting members to either house of Congress. A majority of the total available electoral votes (270 of a possible 538) is required to elect a President. (If no majority is achieved, the House chooses the president and the Senate chooses the vice president.)

To the casual eye, then, the Electoral College appears an oddity of the election-night vote count, nothing more.

Yet every strategist involved in presidential politics becomes, of necessity, an expert in the Electoral College. And if the decision-makers who run the campaigns, up to and including the major-party nominees, are thinking about the Electoral College whenever they make a move concerning travel, campaign spending, and even issue selection, it'll be hard to know what's going on in the intense period that begins following the national conventions in August unless you have some sense of what makes the Electoral College so important to the participants.

The biggest single reality of the Electoral College is that the states can choose how to cast their electoral votes, and that almost all states choose to cast their electoral votes as a bloc on a winner-take-all basis -- from the 3 votes possessed by Wyoming and six other states, all the way up to the 54 cast by California.

Therefore, if a national campaign knows its candidate cannot carry a state, even a state as big as California or New York or Texas, any money spent in that state is a dead loss. Not a single electoral vote can be won there, even if the popular vote in that state winds up closer than expected. It is in the interest of the campaign to terminate serious spending in such a state, and shift the money and effort to a state or states where the candidate has a chance to build toward the 270 electoral votes necessary for election.

In the 1980s, the Republican Party dominated presidential politics. The GOP's worst showing in the three elections comprising the age of Ronald Reagan was in 1988, when Vice President George Bush won the popular vote by eight percentage points and swept the Electoral College by a margin of 426 to 111 for Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Yet it is interesting that, among political insiders, the most widely heard description of this dominance was "Republican lock" or "electoral lock," terms that alluded to the Electoral College.

They were popularized by the late Horace Busby, a respected Democratic activist-turned-analyst of the presidential power curve.

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A Layman's Guide to U.S. Presidential Politics
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