Sunday, November 4, 2012

And the Winner Will Be ...

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by presidential elections.

Mind you, I'm not talking about election campaigns. Modern experience is that political campaigns are nasty, dishonest and undignified — although American history does have a few inspiring tales of elevating campaigns that go a long way toward redeeming the rest.

No, I have never been fascinated by the campaigns. I covered some political campaigns when I was a general assignment reporter, and I know that one political rally is pretty much the same as the next. In fact, with their scripted messages of the day and their identical backdrops, any rallies that take place on the same day really could substitute for any of the others on that evening's news broadcast — and hardly anyone would be the wiser.

What has fascinated me is the numbers that come in on election night, what they say about who we are and what we care about — and the most important numbers of all, of course, the tallies in the Electoral College.

I enjoy analyzing the vote by various demographic groups because it tells us a lot about our priorities, but I guess I have always been more intrigued by the raw state totals that usually determine how each state's electoral votes will be cast. Generations come and go, the faces in the voting lines change but political alliances seldom do.

I suppose that explains why certain states always vote for one party or the other. And I have a healthy respect for the lessons of history.

In the lead–up to this year's elections — in large part, I'm sure, because of our national experience with the recounts of 2000 — some have been openly worrying about the possibility that the popular vote winner will not be the electoral vote winner.

Paul Brandus, for example, recently wrote in The Week about nail–biters in American presidential election history.

And he pointed out something that no one else, to my knowledge, has in this election cycle — the possibility that the electoral vote would be inconclusive and the matter would have to be decided by the Congress.

Brandus wrote about the slim mathematical possibility that both Obama and Romney would finish with 269 electoral votes — one short of the required 270. (Personally, I'm more inclined to believe that a "faithless elector" — or two or three — would prevent a candidate from winning in the Electoral College.)

If that happened, the House would select the president, and the Senate would select the vice president. That is how such an impasse is to be resolved, according to the Constitution.

The catch is that the newly elected Congress — not the one that is presently in power — would make the decisions. Congress has adjourned and is not scheduled to be in session again until January, when the newly elected members will be sworn in.

And their first order of business, in the event of an Electoral College tie, would be to choose the president and vice president.

Most people expect the House to remain in Republican hands — the GOP would have to lose about two dozen seats to lose control of the chamber, which is something that almost never happens (historically), but, in the last three elections, we have seen double–digit seat shifts in the House so it is possible.

However, the fate of the Senate, which is narrowly held by Democrats (who must defend about two–thirds of the seats that will be voted on Tuesday), has been less certain for many observers, but the emerging consensus seems to be the Democrats will hold on to their majority in that chamber.

If that turns out to be the breakdown of the next Congress, Brandus observed, the House would be expected to elect Romney president — and the Senate would be expected to re–elect Vice President Joe Biden. Talk about gridlock.

It's a season for silliness, I suppose. Most of the time, the electoral vote winner is the popular vote winner so, historically speaking, talk of such a split belongs under the heading of worst–case scenario. It is possible but not probable, even in a very close race.

And, usually, a candidate's share of the electoral vote tends to mirror that candidate's share of the popular vote (if not exceed it) as well. But not always. The only requirement for winning a state is to get more votes there than the other guy. It can be by a few hundred votes (see Florida in 2000) or by a million or more (see California, Texas, New York in just about every election in the last 30 years).

For that reason, many political scientists have observed, Democrats (like Al Gore in 2000) may be more vulnerable to a popular vote/electoral vote split because — in recent elections, at least — they have been winning heavily populated states like California and New York by wide margins.

The flip side is that most of the states that are popularly labeled red states these days are primarily smaller states (with the noteworthy exception of Texas) — so if a Republican is winning a majority of the popular vote, recent history suggests that he must be winning (perhaps handily) in the Electoral College because his margins in most states will appear tiny when compared to the Democrat's margins in the larger. more urban states.

(While we're on the topic of silliness, I feel torn between hilarity and horror at the suggestion that the president could postpone the election because of the recent hurricane that devastated the East Coast.

(The Constitution spells out when a federal election is to be held, and only an act of Congress — which is not in session, as I mentioned earlier — could do that. Lawmakers from the interior U.S. almost certainly would sympathize with the plight of the folks in the Northeast but would not see any reason to inconvenience their own constituents, many of whom have already voted early, anyway.

(So I find it hilarious that people even suggest this. It may be in jest or it may be serious. I think both may be at play here because I am sure that at least some are being facetious. But I am inclined to feel horror at the thought that there are citizens out there who not only believe the president possesses such sweeping powers that he can reschedule a national election — but are actually comfortable with one individual having such totalitarian power in a democratic republic.)

Speaking of history, I can't recall a week preceding a presidential election that was quite like last week.

I didn't have access to a wide range of news sources when I was growing up, but I've been online for about 15 years now, and I have witnessed all sorts of columns and articles prior to presidential elections during that time.

And, frankly, I was astonished at the number of post–mortems for the Obama campaign that were appearing in print and online editions of publications last week — almost as if the votes had already been counted.

Steve Huntley of the Chicago Sun–Times wrote that Obama has "eroded" the American dream.

Foremost in these post–mortems was a column by Richard Cohen, who wrote in the Washington Post of watching a documentary about Ethel Kennedy that showed her husband on his trips to Appalachia and Mississippi and how he "brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy" over the plight of the poor.

Kennedy "was determined," Cohen wrote, "you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I've never seen that look on Barack Obama's face." He lamented that "I once wondered if Obama could be another RFK."

But, Cohen wrote, undoubtedly echoing the thoughts of many, "I wish he was the man I once mistook him for."

Anyway, let's get back to the business at hand.

Back in April, I examined the "emerging electoral map" and tried to explain historical voting patterns.

I started off by dismissing nearly half of the states as sure things for one side or another — and, with only one real exception, I'm standing by that forecast.

Of the sure things, Mitt Romney has 14 states — Alabama (9 electoral votes), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3). Total = 120 electoral votes.

Barack Obama has 10 states (and D.C.) — California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12). Total = 145 electoral votes.

The wild card in that group, I feel, is Oregon.

Yes, I know that Obama carried Oregon by more than 16 percentage points in 2008. And I know Democrats have carried Oregon in six straight presidential elections.

But I'm still doubtful about the state.

Last Monday, The Oregonian reported a six–point lead for Obama in its latest statewide poll.

That may sound good to Obama supporters, conditioned as they have been lately to disappearing leads in states they were counting on carrying, but it actually represents a decline from findings in polls taken in the last three or four months. It isn't a huge decline as these things go — and it falls within the typical margin for error so things may not have changed in Oregon.

But slippage would be in keeping with the apparent pattern in most states.

And, even though seven electoral votes from a single state doesn't mean much when there are 531 electoral votes in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, seven electoral votes might make all the difference in a race that is expected to be as close as this one is believed to be.

(Personally, I don't think it will be as close as many people do.)

So, while I still predict that Oregon will vote for Obama, I also say that, if it is a very close race, Oregon will bear watching in the late–night hours when the votes on the West Coast are being counted.

I'm still inclined to keep Oregon among the sure things — but, in the shifting political climate, I'm not as sure of it as I was.

I labeled the next group of states the probables — states that are likely to vote in a certain way but, for one reason or another, their eventual leaning will remain unclear until the votes are counted on Tuesday.

Romney had nine states in this group: Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Montana (3), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), West Virginia (5). Total = 70 electoral votes.

I'm inclined to leave those states in the Republican column — including Colorado. Many observers have been listing Colorado as too close to call — but Colorado usually seems to be close. (Well, Obama did carry the state by about nine percentage points in 2008.)

It also seldom votes for Democrats. In the 14 presidential elections before 2008, Colorado only voted for Democrats twice. And it hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since it supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.

Most recent polls show either candidate with a one–point lead or the two candidates tied. I expect it will be close on election night, but I'm sticking with my original prediction that Romney will carry the state.

Obama has five states among the probables: Delaware (3), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14). Total = 51 electoral votes.

I still think Obama will win those five states, but I'm a little dubious about Minnesota and New Jersey.

Minnesota has a long history of supporting Democrats. It hasn't voted for a Republican since Richard Nixon's 49–state landslide in 1972.

A week ago, though, rumors were rampant that Obama was planning a visit to Minnesota, sparking speculation that Democrats were in trouble there. Obama, preoccupied with Hurricane Sandy, didn't go to Minnesota after all, but former President Bill Clinton came instead.

Minnesota voted for Obama by about 10 percentage points four years ago, and it is hard to imagine that it would flip to the Republicans. But Clinton's presence there about a week before the election can only be interpreted as a sign that Democrats are worried.

My next category was the leaners. Like the probables, they can be expected to vote in a certain way — but the chances that they actually will are less than they are for the probables.

Romney has two states in this group: North Carolina (15), Virginia (13). Total = 28 electoral votes.

They were both regarded as too close to call a few months ago, but I felt Obama effectively lost North Carolina when he announced his support for gay marriage the day after North Carolina voters resoundingly rejected it.

Virginia is still considered too close to call by many. But its support for Obama in 2008 was the first time it had voted for a Democrat in more than 40 years — and Virginia hasn't voted for Democrats in back–to–back elections since the 1940s — all of which leads me to believe Virginia will vote — albeit narrowly — for Romney. Especially if George Allen's Senate race is successful.

Obama also had two states among the leaners: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5). Total = 21 electoral votes.

New Mexico looks like it will remain in the Democrats' column, but I'm not so certain about Michigan. That, after all, is where Romney was born and where his father served as governor. Obama did win the state by more than 800,000 votes in 2008 — and a recent Detroit Newspoll showed Obama in the lead — but that lead, which has been cut in half since early October, was within the margin of error.

Ramussen recently found Obama leading in Michigan with 50%. I think Obama can count on it — but it may be late in the evening before he can secure Michigan's electoral votes.

That gives the following electoral vote totals: Romney = 218, Obama = 217. And it leaves eight battleground states — Florida (29), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10) — worth 103 electoral votes.

I designated these states as battlegrounds back in April. Most are still regarded as battlegrounds today; a few are considered reasonably safe for one candidate or another, but I think all are in play to an extent.

Recent polls indicate that Missouri is likely to vote Republican, which would boost Romney's electoral vote total to 228. And, in fact, polls have been suggesting a Romney victory in Missouri was increasingly likely ever since I posted my first glance at the Electoral College.

But the other seven states still are generally regarded as too close to call — even if some polls suggest that one candidate or the other has a modest lead.

So let's look at them, one by one:
  • Florida — The race appears close in Florida, with recent polls showing one– or two–point leads for either candidate. Florida voted for Obama four years ago, but the state hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the days of FDR and Harry Truman.

    I think it will be close – no surprise there — but I think it will be in the Republican column. (Romney = 257, Obama = 217)
  • Iowa — The Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Romney, reported Saturday that Obama leads by five points, but he is still below 50%.

    It will probably be tight in Iowa, but I think Obama will carry it. (Romney = 257, Obama = 223)
  • Nevada — With one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, Nevada seems like fertile ground for Romney, and perhaps it will turn out that way on Tuesday.

    But even though the Las Vegas Review Journal, in a sharply worded editorial, endorsed Romney last Thursday, Obama's lead in Nevada appears to be growing.

    So I will pick Nevada to vote for Obama. (Romney = 257, Obama = 229)
  • New Hampshire — New Hampshire was once considered reliably Republican, but it has voted Democrat in four of the last five elections.

    A recent University of New Hampshire poll found the candidates tied at 48–48. Since undecided voters tend to break for the challenger, I will call this state for Romney. (Romney = 261, Obama = 229)
  • Ohio — It is an article of faith among political observers that no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. Sometimes Republicans have lost the national election in spite of winning Ohio (Richard Nixon in 1960, Tom Dewey in 1944).

    Most recent polls — MSNBC, CNN, — show the president at 50% or better in Ohio. And, without the auto bailout, it is hard to argue that Ohio would be doing as well as it is in the current economic climate.

    It is worth noting that Rasmussen says the race is a dead heat. Perhaps it is.

    But, right now, I'm inclined to pick Ohio to vote for Obama.

    Does that mean Romney will lose? Not necessarily. Twenty years ago, when George H.W. Bush sought a second term, polls showed him leading Bill Clinton in Texas — and political observers pointed out that no Democrat had won the presidency without winning Texas.

    But Clinton was elected president twice — and Obama was elected president once — without the support of Texas. A U.S. presidential election is actually 51 individual elections (50 states and the District of Columbia). If Romney loses Ohio, it is only 18 electoral votes — the fewest Ohio has been worth since the days of Andrew Jackson — and that loss can be made up with victories elsewhere. (Romney = 261, Obama =247)
  • Pennsylvania — I'm sure no one in the Obama campaign thought Pennsylvania would be up for grabs in the closing days of the election, but I predicted it would back in April — and my reason was the strong Republican showing in the state in the 2010 midterm elections.

    Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat and the statehouse.

    Recent surveys by Franklin & Marshall and the Philadelphia Inquirer have Obama leading but with a plurality, not a majority.

    And, since Pennsylvania was assumed to be a lock for Obama, it was spared the barrage of anti–Romney commercials that flooded other battleground states in the spring and summer — so the voters there had few preconceived notions that Romney had to refute

    To be fair, that wasn't an unreasonable conclusion. Pennsylvania voted for Obama by a 10–point margin in 2008, and the state hasn't voted Republican since 1988.

    In a close race, Democrats usually hope for a strong turnout in Democrat–leaning Philadelphia to help them win Pennsylvania. But I wonder just how strong the turnout in Philadelphia will be, given its close proximity to the area that was most directly affected by Hurricane Sandy.

    I believe few, if any, Americans hope that the pain and suffering caused by the hurricane will influence the election in any way, but, if turnout in Philly is lower than usual — and I'm inclined to think it might be — that could tip the balance of power to Romney. And that is what I think will happen. (Romney = 281, Obama = 247)
  • Wisconsin — Usually, Wisconsin could be expected to be even more Democratic than Michigan, perhaps about as Democratic as Minnesota.

    But a couple of things make me think Wisconsin will vote for Romney.

    For one, Wisconsin has been the site of many recent Republican victories — the 2010 election of Scott Walker as governor and the rejection of the recent recall effort, the 2010 election of Republican Ron Johnson to the U.S. Senate, and the shift of two of its eight House seats from Democrat to Republican hands.

    For another, Wisconsin does not usually have a candidate on the national ticket. But this year it has one in Rep. Paul Ryan, who ran 13 percentage points ahead of Obama in his southeast Wisconsin district in 2008.

    I think Wisconsin will vote for Romney. (Romney = 291, Obama = 247)

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