Tuesday, July 8, 2008


US Presidential elections have not usually been closely contested. The talking heads on the TV would have you believe otherwise, but they have 168 hours to fill, each week, for more than a year leading up to the election. How can they do that if they don’t “pretend” it’s a tight race? Still. History shows us, it rarely is. Why should 2008 be any different? It won’t be. It won’t be a close election. It isn’t close now; and the result won’t be either. And remember, it’s not the popular vote that matters. It’s the Electoral College vote that counts.

You might say the Electoral College has been screwed up since the beginning. In 1800, the Electors, in a fit of constitutional illiteracy, cast the same number of votes – 73 – for both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The idea of political parties – and thus party tickets, with one candidate slated for the Presidency and the other for the Vice-Presidency – was new. Party politics failed its first test, although the error was soon corrected and Jefferson did indeed become our third President, not the ill-fated Burr who had to make do, in historical terms, with a novel titled in his name, written by Gore Vidal. While most would argue Jefferson got the better of the deal, who among us would not like to have Gore Vidal write a novel with our name on it?

Despite the recent spate of talking heads on cable TV analyzing possible electoral outcomes, and making pronouncements about the “closeness” of the upcoming race between Barack Obama and John McCain (and Ralph Nader and Bob Barr as well), we really have no history of close Presidential elections. A tight election in the Electoral College is a rarity.

The first consideration is - we do not have a national Presidential election. Yes, we all vote on the same day. But no, we do not all vote in the same election. While we are subjected to endless national poll figures – running averages; daily and weekly changes – they mean nothing, absolutely nothing. The winner is not the candidate who gets the most votes across the nation. The winner is the candidate who garners a majority of the Electoral College votes. What we really have is 51 elections, all contested at the same time. Every state, plus the District of Columbia, votes – and the winner of each election gets the Electoral College votes designated for that state or for Washington D.C.

The combined number of Electoral College votes is 538. The candidate who gets 270 of them becomes the next President of The United States. We’ve had only a few very close election results. In 1796, John Adams beat Thomas Jefferson 71 to 68. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden by a single vote – 185 to 184. In many ways, the “closest” election ever was in 1824 when Andrew Jackson won 99 Electoral votes and John Quincy Adams won only 84. Yet, Adams became President anyway because two other candidates – William Crawford and Henry Clay won 41 and 37 Electoral votes, thus pushing the final selection into The House of Representatives. You can’t any closer than “winning” while losing. Of course, we all remember 2000.

Some Presidential elections which popular culture has declared as “close” actually weren’t. “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” was the headline in the Chicago Tribune in 1948, but the Electoral College vote was: Harry Truman 303 – Thomas Dewey 189. The famous election of 1912, the only one in which three Presidents ran against each other, was really a runaway landslide. Woodrow Wilson got 435 Electoral votes; Teddy Roosevelt got only 88; and William Howard Taft got a paltry 8 Electoral votes.

The narrowest margin in the popular vote was in the 1968 election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, but in the Electoral College, Nixon swamped his opponent 301 to 191.

The most dominant candidate to ever run for President was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He ran, and won, four times and none of his opponents ever managed to get 100 votes in the Electoral College – not one of them.

Three times a losing candidate has managed only two wins out of all the states voting. Alf Landon won Vermont and Maine for only 8 Electoral votes in 1936; Walter Mondale could win only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, for a total of 13 Electoral votes, in 1984; and George McGovern, running against Nixon in 1972, was victorious only in what Nixon called “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts” and Washington DC for a total of 17 Electoral votes. Modern Presidential losers generally get beaten up pretty badly in the Electoral College.

Stevenson got only 73 Electoral votes against Ike in 1956. Barry Goldwater scored only 52 votes in 1964 against LBJ; Dukakis managed 111 against Bush the Elder. More recent losers like Bush the Elder got only 168 Electoral votes against Clinton in 1992 while Bob Dole got even less, 159 as Clinton’s 1996 opponent. It has only been the last two Presidential elections where the Electoral College vote has been hotly contested. In 2000, Al Gore won 266 votes and in 2004 John Kerry won 251 votes in the Electoral College. In each of these elections, the switch of a single state would have made the other candidate the winner. And in each of these elections corruption boils barely beneath the surface. How close is close?

What will happen in 2008? Why will history reassert itself and make this election as clearly decisive in its Electoral College result as most past elections?


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