AN American presidential election is not a national vote but a series of 50 statewide elections. The aim of each presidential candidate is to win a combination of states that will give him 270 of the 538 electoral votes, the number needed for election.
One of the most fought-over states in November will be California, whose 54 electoral votes are the key to Democratic hopes of regaining the White House.
The entry (still unofficial) of Ross Perot into this year's race has thrown calculations based on past elections out the window. The results of a two-man race - between GOP President Bush and the Democrat, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton - or a three-man race including Mr. Perot are very different.
Public opinion polls tell the candidates and their strategists that states usually considered a sure bet for one party or the other are now up for grabs. E. Spencer Abraham, co-chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee, points to states like Massachusetts: "In a two-way race, Bush loses," he says. "But in a three-way race, he wins. In the South, Bush leads in a two-way race, but Clinton wins in some Southern states in a three-way race." Democrats count on California
Observers say that Governor Clinton must win California to be elected. "It's hard for any Democrat to win without California," Mr. Abraham says.
Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant in Boston who was affiliated with the 1988 Michael Dukakis and 1992 Paul Tsongas campaigns, agrees that for Clinton, "California is essential."
According to Mr. Goldman's calculations, Clinton must carry California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, the South (except Texas), Michigan, and Illinois to win the White House. This combination would give him 281 electoral votes. Without California, he says, "I don't see how you do it." If Clinton won all the above states except California, he would have only 227 electoral votes, and the election could be thrown into the House of Representatives.
This presents a serious challenge for Clinton: He is not popular in California. In fact, a recent poll by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, reported in the Wall Street Journal, shows Bush leading Clinton 40 percent to 36 percent in a two-way race. But Perot gallops ahead in a three-way contest with 41 percent, versus 24 percent for Bush and 22 percent for Clinton.
In addition, the math indicates that, while Clinton cannot win without California, Bush can. Not that the president faces a cakewalk: For one thing, the same Mason-Dixon poll shows Perot currently leading in Texas in a three-way race with 41 percent, with Bush coming in second at 30 percent and Clinton trailing with 21 percent. (Bush wins in a two-way race, 53 percent versus 32 percent for Clinton.)
Texas, with 32 electoral votes, has been a key to GOP victories in recent elections. Abraham says that even if Perot takes Texas, the president could still win if he carries the South and replaces Texas by winning any three of six big states: Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Goldman, who believes Perot will not be a factor in the race, says Bush will carry New Jersey and Ohio. But he thinks Clinton will carry the South, except for Texas, and win the election. Battle in Florida?
If there is a three-way race, Florida, with 25 electoral votes, may be another serious battleground. The Mason-Dixon poll shows Bush leading Clinton 50 percent to 34 percent in a two-way race, but Perot squeaks ahead with 34 percent compared to Bush's 31 percent and Clinton's 22 percent in a three-way race.
A state-by-state analysis by California pollster Mervin Field has more sobering news for the Clinton campaign. As reported in the New York Times, it shows that Clinton currently is ahead only in his native Arkansas and in the District of Columbia, with a grand total of nine electoral votes. In 15 states with 147 electoral votes, the race is said to be too close to call, although it is mostly a contest between Bush and Perot.
And Clinton continues to run a consistent third in national polls:
* A New York Times/CBS poll conducted June 17-20 has Bush favored by 32 percent of respondents, with 30 percent favoring Perot and 24 percent Clinton.
* A USA Today/CNN poll done June 12-14 has Perot leading among 34 percent of those surveyed, with 32 percent for Bush and 24 percent for Clinton.
* A poll by the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press carried out from May 28 to June 10 has Perot favored by 36 percent of respondents, compared to 31 percent for Bush and 27 percent for Clinton.
* And a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Perot favored by 38 percent of those surveyed, Bush by 30 percent, and Clinton by 26 percent.
Polls are only snapshots, and the election is still several months away. Perot's popularity could fade as the public gets to know him better; Bush's favorability ratings remain low, especially relating to his handling of the economy; and Clinton continues to be dogged by questions about his character.
Much will change before November. But the electoral-college arithmetic will continue to drive campaign strategy.