Monday, June 16, 2008

The Electoral College

We'll be hearing a lot about the Electoral College in the months before the presidential election.

Peter A. Brown, who is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, is a specialist in battleground states and he offers a little insight in the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps his most important observation is this:

"There is one unusual aspect of this business that no company, whether it sells computer chips or potato chips, has to deal with: Every aspect of the presidential campaign is zero-sum, and winner takes-all."

As they say in "Absence of Malice" (an early 1980s movie starring Paul Newman and Sally Field), that's not true but it's accurate.

What actually happens in a presidential election is this:

The voters in each state elect a slate of electors who have been chosen by their respective parties.

You won't see their names on your ballot -- you'll cast your vote for Barack Obama or John McCain -- but what you're actually doing is selecting a slate of electors who will choose the next president when they cast their votes.

It is generally assumed that a candidate takes a state's electors on a winner-takes-all basis because, most of the time, that's what happens.

But electors are not required to vote in the same way their states did.

Legally (but still theoretically), Nebraska and Maine could have to split their electoral votes, depending on the outcomes in each congressional district. But, otherwise, I know of no laws that bind electors to the results in their states.

But, based on the assumption that each state's electors will honor the preference as expressed by that state's voters, here are the keys to victory, in Brown's eyes:

  1. Easy victory for Obama: "If Sen. Obama is ahead solidly in Ohio, Colorado and Virginia and competitive in Florida," Brown writes, "he will be headed for the Oval Office with a mandate."

    But, Brown goes on to point out, "It is worth noting that the Democrats have not won a landslide presidential election since 1964."

  2. Easy victory for McCain: "If Sen. McCain not only has Ohio safely tucked away but also is holding off Sen. Obama in Virginia and Colorado," says Brown, "then he can breathe a sigh of relief."

    Well, it worked for George W. Bush.

  3. Close election: This has been our national experience in the last two presidential campaigns so, of course, this is what most people are anticipating, Brown says.

    "For Sen. McCain it would involve holding virtually all of the 286 electoral votes President Bush carried four years ago but losing Iowa (seven electoral votes) and New Mexico (five), the two most likely states to switch from red to blue," Brown writes.

    "For Sen. Obama to win by a hair rather than losing narrowly, the difference might be adding Colorado (nine electoral votes) or Nevada (five) to that list."

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