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At the present time, a person needs only 270 votes to be elected President of the United States. Under our Constitution, the votes you cast in November go, one way or the other, toward the selection of the Electoral College -- and it is the members of that college whose votes make the actual selection of the President.
According to this August 8 electoral map published on the Huffington Post, if the election were held today, reelection would be a near-certainty for Mr. Obama at this point. While this may (and probably will) change, according to the polls relied upon by the website, very few states (Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida) are really 'up for grabs' at this moment.
Watching television in those states must be a real ordeal at this point, as both campaigns pour millions into commercials recruiting voters to their side -- or scaring off the other guy's voters.
But the states in light blue on the map are also potentially in play, even if they are presently leaning, to one degree or another, in Mr. Obama's favor.
If Mr. Romney is to win, he must focus on the four undecided states and those light blue ones and bring them into his camp. Television watching in these states, too, will become increasingly difficult as the campaign goes on.
The interesting thing about this map is that there are no 'soft' Romney states -- no states shaded light red. Mr. Obama will avoid campaigning in any of the dark red states and the good people of those states will be spared from competing torrents of presidential attack ads. Mr. Obama may go to Texas -- Austin, perhaps, or maybe Houston, for a fundraiser, but not to make any pitch to local voters. It would be a waste of resources.
Similarly, Mr. Romney will not bother the good people of Illinois, New York or California all that often this year. He was in Illinois this week to raise funds and he did make an appearance at Acme Industries in suburban Elk Grove Village to make a speech -- but that was intended for the evening network news, not local consumption. Illinois will not waver in its support of Mr. Obama (although if you were to look at a red-blue, county-by-county map of Illinois on the day after the election, you might not believe that Obama handily carried the state). Here in Chicago, however, we will still will get a hefty dose of campaign commercials: The most populous areas of Southeast Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee, a state Mr. Romney wants and Mr. Obama needs to hold, are in the Chicago TV market.
Nor will Mr. Obama come back to Illinois much. He'll be here this weekend -- a belated celebration of his 51st birthday, it will be said -- but all the invited guests are the big local donors who launched Mr. Obama on his meteoric rise from an obscure Springfield legislator to the White House. Neither will Mr. Romney spend much time campaigning in the states that comprise his base. This is all good, sound Electoral College logic.
Some people think the Electoral College is undemocratic.
It sure is.
It was intended to be.
We are a nation of sovereign states who together have formed a union -- out of many, one (e pluribus unum). It is the states, ultimately, who select the nation's chief magistrate. Although popular elections in each state now determine the composition of the Electoral College, it is the states' electoral votes that decide the contest. Thus, while Mr. Romney may have less ground to make up in Iowa, it is a poor prize (only six electoral votes) compared to the potentially rich harvest of 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania or 18 in Ohio. The professionals advising both candidates will concentrate the resources of their respective campaigns as necessary to produce the most possible electoral votes.
Usually the Electoral College provides the healthy function of being a mandate multiplier. Only a few million votes will typically separate the winner from the loser in a national election. Out of nearly 130 million votes in 2008, for example, then-Senator Obama received only 9.5 million more popular votes than Senator McCain. But Mr. Obama won a clear majority of states -- 28 to 22 -- and that 52.9% of the popular vote ballooned to a much more impressive 66.2% of the electoral vote. In 2004, a close reelection contest, President Bush had only 3 million more popular votes than Sen. Kerry. But Bush carried 31 states, and his razor-thin 50.7% of the popular vote was a safer 53% majority in the Electoral College.
This mandate multiplication is even more dramatic when a third party candidate is involved, as in 1992. President George H.W. Bush lost to then-Gov. Bill Clinton by less than six million votes. But this small 5.5% margin in the popular vote became a whopping 31% margin in the Electoral College -- a 100 vote victory because third-party candidate Ross Perot did not win a single electoral vote (despite picking up nearly 19% of the popular vote.
The reason the Electoral College stands in bad odor with some is the Bush-Gore election of 2000. Vice President Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote -- a half million vote margin out of over 101 million cast -- but lost in the Electoral College 271 votes to 266. (And, yes, that's 537 votes, not the 538 that should have been recorded. According to Wikipedia, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector from the District of Columbia, abstained from voting -- she was supposed to vote for Gore and Lieberman -- in protest, she said, of the District's lack of voting representation in Congress.)
The only other times a president was elected without receiving a majority of the popular vote were 1876 and 1824 -- and voter eligibility was quite different in those far-off days. (In 1876, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes was determined by a single electoral vote; in 1824 no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown, as per the Constitution, into the House of Representatives.)
That's a pretty good track record -- and a compelling argument for not tinkering with the Electoral College. The Roman Republic fell apart because it could not arrive at an agreed-upon method for the peaceful transfer of power; the institutions that served it well enough as a city-state proved inadequate to the task of governing an empire. In the United States, the Electoral College has helped ensure that transfers of power here are, and remain, peaceful down to the present day.
God bless the Electoral College. And, if you're in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida or any of the other battleground states, the interference with your TV watching habits between now and November 6, however obnoxious, is a small price to pay for the continuation of the American miracle of peaceful transfer of power.