Forget the polls, only electoral college matters

Presidential election 2000 is really 50, winner-take-all state elections - and there, Bush has the advantage.

Forget all those nationwide polls showing Al Gore and George W. Bush in a neck-and-neck race for the White House.

In reality, Vice President Gore still faces an uphill climb in the battleground that really counts: the Electoral College.

According to politics-watcher Charles Cook, Republican Bush has 20 states, representing 167 electoral votes, solidly or likely in his camp, while the Democratic Gore has only seven states plus the District of Columbia, worth 77 electoral votes.

When the states that are leaning one way or the other are added in, Bush is up to 250 electoral votes, and Gore has only 174.

Brad Coker, head of the Mason-Dixon polling firm, counts Bush's "base" of electoral votes at 200 to 220 and Gore's at about 130. To win the presidency, a candidate needs at least 270 of the total 538 electoral votes.

"Regardless of what national polls say, you have to look at it on a state-by-state basis from the beginning," says Mr. Coker. "Bush just has a larger base coming into this, even if Gore catches him and holds even in national polls."

Here's how it works: The US president isn't elected directly by voters, but by "electors" - people chosen by the voters of each state to elect the president. And because each state's electors vote for president on a winner-take-all basis, according to their state's popular vote, the vote counts in each state can carry different weight.

In practice, the electoral college encourages nominees to allocate resources on a state-by-state basis, taking account of which of the larger states are within reach.

In a very close race, it's conceivable that a candidate can lose the national popular vote but win the electoral vote. That's happened three times in United States history, in 1824 with the election of John Quincy Adams, 1876 with Rutherford B. Hayes, and 1888 with Benjamin Harrison.

Could it happen this time? It's too soon to say. But for now, the pundits are predicting a close presidential battle this fall - and, they say, if the top two candidates wind up within one or two percentage points of each other in the popular vote, it's possible the loser could win in the Electoral College.

Despite Bush's advantage in electoral votes, the states that are barely leaning one way or the other or are pure tossups make the Electoral College scene "extremely fluid," says Mr. Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.

He makes his assessments on the basis of how the states have voted historically, and comparing the outlooks of the two campaigns' Electoral College experts. During this post-convention period, the polls haven't settled down and will become more indicative after Labor Day.

Still, some of the latest polls show some good signs for Gore, such as the Field Poll out of California that put the vice president ahead there by 13 points. As the biggest electoral prize, with 54 votes, California is a must-win state for Gore. Minnesota, another must-win for the Democrats, also now has Gore up by eight points. In Michigan, a tossup state, Gore is up by two points.

Overall, the nation's electoral "shape" looks like a capital "L," as it has in the last several presidential-campaign cycles. The Rocky Mountain West is solidly Republican, as is the South. The Northeast is solidly Democratic.

While the West Coast has been solidly Democratic the last few election cycles, Washington and Oregon - two other states Gore needs to win the race - are tossups. The big industrial states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, are tossups, as are New Jersey, Iowa, Arkansas, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, and Delaware.

West Virginia, with its five electoral votes, has caught the attention of election-watchers. In the last several elections, the state has gone Democratic, but it is now taking a more Republican turn.

Analysts surmise that is because the economy isn't as strong there as it is in the country as a whole, and because of the state's social conservative values.

If the race remains close as Nov. 7 approaches, the small states will be worth watching: Each state has at least three electoral votes, regardless of population, and so the small states can have disproportionate influence on the outcome. Many of those small states are in the Republican camp.

But President Clinton proved that the Republicans don't have an electoral lock on the modern-day presidency. And Gore is counting on following in his path.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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