Posted on September 21, 1992 in Washington Watch

To understand the inner workings of U.S. presidential elections, it is necessary to understand the role played by what is called the electoral vote.

According to the U.S. Constitution, presidents are not elected by the popular vote but rather by the electoral vote.

Each of the 50 states has an assigned number of electoral votes, or electors. States have as many electors as their combined number of congressmen and senators. Every state has 2 senators, but the number of congressmen is determined by each state’s population.

Thus, the most populous state, California, has 52 congressmen and 2 senators for a total of 54 electoral votes. A less populous state, such as Vermont, has only one congressman in addition to its two senators; therefore Vermont has 3 electoral votes.

The popular vote is not counted on the national level. Rather, it is counted on a state-by-state basis. The winner of each state receives all of that state’s electoral votes.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes (435 congressmen, 100 senators plus three electoral votes for the only non-state, the nation’s capital, Washington, DC). In order to win the election, a presidential candidate must win enough states to win at least 270 electoral votes, or one half of the total plus one.

This complex system has produced presidential campaigns which are run not as national efforts, but as individual state campaigns.

The themes and programs put forward by the candidate are national in scope, but the tactics of each campaign are focused on a local state-by-state basis. Different approaches are needed to win votes in each state and region of the country.


Since 1968 the Republicans have had what has been called a “lock” on the electoral vote. Because their message and programs appealed to so many diverse constituencies and regions of the country, Republicans have been virtually guaranteed victory in 21 states with a total of 191 electoral votes. They have won these states all six times in the last six elections. In five of the last six elections, they also won another twelve states with a combined total of 138 electoral votes. Together, these 33 states have given the Republicans an almost certain 329 votes—hence the phrase that the Republicans have a “lock on the White House.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have only won Washington, DC all six times.

As a result of their regularly winning these states, even if only by a small margin, Republicans have virtually been guaranteed victories by what appear to be large margins in the electoral vote, but not in the popular vote.

In 1968 for example, Richard Nixon, the Republican, beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey by a mere one percent of the popular vote (only 500,000 votes nationally). Nixon’s real victory came in the electoral vote where he won enough states to win by a margin of 301-191. (That year, a southern Governor named George Wallace ran as an independent and won 46 electoral votes by winning a number of southern states.)

And while Ronald Reagan is remembered for his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, in fact he won by only 9 percent of the popular vote. The landslide came in the electoral vote count, which Reagan won 489 to 49.)

Even George Bush’s 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis was less than 8 percent nationally, but he won enough states to give him a 426 to 111 margin in electoral votes.

As a result of this Republican “lock” on almost all of the Western states (including California), the industrial mid-Western states (especially Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio), and most of the Southern states (when a southerner like Carter or Wallace isn’t in the race), Democrats were at a real disadvantage when running national campaigns.

With Republicans all but guaranteed victory in so many states, Democrats had to win all the rest and then win a few of the so-called `Republican states’ just to be competitive.


Given this assessment of U.S. politics, the most important new fact in 1992 is that the Republican “lock” appears to have been broken. Polls in several of the key `Republican states’ now show Clinton leading by a huge margin, which in turn presents real problems for the President’s campaign.

In the past, because Republicans could count on winning certain states and were relatively free to use their assets in an effort to win elsewhere, it was the Democrats who had to fight on the defensive. This year it is the Republicans who must compete and be defensive in states that they felt certain of winning in previous years.

For example, all recent polls show Clinton with a wide margin over Bush in major previously Republican states such as California (54 electoral votes) and Illinois (22 votes). The reasons for this change vary from state to state.

In California, for instance, in addition to the lagging economy, there is widespread public dissatisfaction with that state’s Republican Governor, Pete Wilson. At the same time, there is tremendous support for the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate candidates (both of whom are women) who currently hold big leads over their lesser known and politically weak Republican rivals. Finally, the Republican Party in California is in a state of almost total disarray due to an ideological battle between its left and right wings, which has limited the party’s ability to help its candidates.

In Illinois, the state’s Democratic Senate candidate, an African American woman named Carol Mosely Braun, has generated great enthusiasm and support. She is currently leading her Republican rival by a margin greater than 2 to 1. In this state, the Republicans expected to be running against Senator Alan Dixon who they felt they had little chance to beat and so nominated a weaker candidate than they otherwise might have; but they didn’t count on Dixon’s being upset in the Democratic primary by someone like Braun.

These three women are not only campaigning for themselves but for Bill Clinton as well, and their popularity is helping his cause in their states. A Democratic victory in these two states will take a total of 76 electoral votes which the Republican Party used to count on getting.


Understanding the role played by the electoral vote in U.S. presidential elections helps to make clear the maneuverings of the two campaigns during these last weeks of the election.

Why, for example, did George Bush spend so much time and money in Florida and Louisiana to help hurricane victims while not even visiting Hawaii which was also devastated by a hurricane?

The answer is simple. Florida and Louisiana have a combined total of 34 electoral votes and are considered part of the Republican “lock.” They usually vote Republican, though this year polls show Clinton doing well in both states, and the Republicans can’t afford to lose them so Bush acted very visibly. Hawaii, on the other hand, has only four electors and usually votes Democratic.

For the same reason, the President is pushing hard to sell F-15 and F-16 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Those planes are produced in Texas (which has 32 electoral votes), Ohio (21 votes), Missouri (11 votes) and California (54 votes). The sale of these planes means jobs and economic benefits which the President hopes will translate into votes to help him win these important states. It’s also interesting to note that the President traveled to Missouri to announce the Saudi sale and to Texas to announce the Taiwanese sale so as to get the maximum political benefit from each announcement.

The same electoral vote consideration explains Bill Clinton’s widely reported bus tour through 8 Eastern and mid-Western states. Almost all of these were industrial Republican “lock” states which Clinton obviously hoped to win over during his extensive tours.

Electoral vote strategy also helps explain the attention campaigns pay to various ethnic constituencies. Because the Jewish community is so heavily concentrated in a few states, it is an important voting bloc since their votes can help win these states. New York has 33 electoral votes and 10% of the state is Jewish. Six percent of New Jersey is Jewish and it, too, is a big state with 15 electoral votes.

Interestingly enough, this very electoral vote strategy may serve, this year, to open up national presidential politics for Arab Americans. Arab Americans have now become a major voting bloc in Michigan. This year Michigan is considered to be a battleground state—important because of its size (18 electoral votes) but too close to call for either candidate. Hence, for the first time, both parties are showing interest in finding ways to win the vote of Arab Americans in Michigan.

The most important voting bloc this year is African Americans. Recent national polls show Clinton leading Bush by an average of 10 percent. What is most interesting is that among white voters Bush and Clinton are tied; however, all the polls agree that Clinton is leading Bush among African Americans by a large margin of 85 percent to 5 percent. While African Americans are only 12 percent of the electorate, they are a decisive voting bloc in several very critical states: California, New York, Illinois, and most of the states in the deep South. The critical question for the Clinton camp is no longer how much support he will get from African Americans, but what percentage of this constituency he can bring to the polls on election day.

To bring out the African American vote, while remaining at least even with white voters, Clinton has embarked on a carefully designed strategy. He has courted moderate African American leaders, especially African American members of Congress who have been elected from congressional districts where there are also large numbers of white voters. At the same time, he has kept at arms length from Jesse Jackson out of fear that while Jackson could help him win African American votes, his support might also cost him the white support he also needs to win.


“Change” and “Trust” as Campaign Themes

As the campaign nears its conclusion, some new trends are developing. On the national level both campaigns have focused on two “non-issues” as defining themes: “change” and “trust”. Every specific issue raised by the campaigns is addressed in terms of these two words.

Clinton has perceived that voters are alienated from politics-in-general and frustrated by the continuing economic recession. He has, therefore, developed “change” as his theme.

Bush has sought to co-opt this theme and turn it against Clinton. The change Bill Clinton proposes, suggests the President, is change back to the failed economic policies of Democrats like Jimmy Carter—high inflation, big government and higher taxes.

But while Bush has received high marks for his recent address on economic policy, it was also seen as a bit too late to take hold in the campaign as an effective counter to the Clinton appeal.

The President has been somewhat more successful in addressing the question of trust. While polls show voters giving him poor grades in economic policy and confidence his overall administration record is not high, Bush is viewed as a trusted leader. The President has, therefore, sought to focus attention on Clinton’s most vulnerable point: trust.

The question of how Bill Clinton dealt with the Vietnam draft has become a focal point of the Republican attack. The central thrust of the argument is not that Clinton opposed the war (since most Americans didn’t support the war or don’t in retrospect), or even that he did not serve in the military (since many Bush Administration officials, including Secretary of defense Bill Cheney, have no record of military service); but rather, the issue is how Clinton avoided the draft and how many times he has changed his explanation of this matter.

Clinton had hoped that this issue would go away, but it has come back to haunt him throughout the past two weeks. News stories have appeared almost daily presenting some new facts about Clinton’s behavior and raising new questions about his truthfulness.

While Clinton’s standing has not been immediately affected as a result of this controversy, it may yet sink and erode public confidence in his overall honesty. When Clinton was dealing with these issues during the primaries, one observer noted that although one quick blow would not sink Clinton, his campaign could “die the death of a thousand cuts.” This is obviously what the President is hoping for.

To counter the damage being done to him by this issue, the Clinton campaign has sought to reopen the question of George Bush’s involvement in the Iran-contra affair. Whether this counter-thrust will catch on in the days and weeks before the election is unclear, but there is a reservoir of sentiment that Clinton can tap on this matter, as shown in a recent poll which found that 60 percent of the public felt satisfied with Clinton’s explanation of his actions regarding the draft while only 39% were satisfied with Bush’s explanation of his actions regarding the Iran-contra affair. In any case, the Clinton campaign is hoping their strategy will deflect attention from their candidate’s problems and at least neutralize the “trust” issue.

Another factor on the national level is the emergence of this year’s worst nightmare: Ross Perot. After feigning a withdrawal from the campaign in July, Perot kept open 63 regional offices and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue his petition drive. He is now on the ballot in all fifty states and has once again emerged as a guest on all the national television talk shows. He daily teases the public about his campaign’s intentions.

National polls Perot receiving 15 percent of the vote—taking votes from both Bill Clinton and George Bush. While he knows that, at this point, he cannot win and that his only role could be that of a spoiler, it appears that his continuous effort is intended to challenge and weaken George Bush. Perot continues, in general terms, to criticize both campaigns for not addressing his economic reform package designed to cut the deficit. And he points with pride to the fact that his platform, now in a rather thin and simplistic paperback book titled United We Stand, is a number one on the best seller’s list. Nevertheless, he reserves his most bitter attacks for the President.

It is unclear exactly what Perot will do. Some suggest that he may endorse Bill Clinton, others suggest he will continue to run as an issue candidate. What is certain that he will not win any states and therefore will not affect the electoral vote count directly, although his presence may be large enough in some states (particularly Texas) to alter the race between Clinton and Bush to some degree. But no matter what his actual influence, he will remain a troublesome and unpredictable factor in this campaign.


While specifics might be lacking in the national messages of the two campaigns, the state-by-state strategies are more sharply defined. The President now feels a bit more confident that he can still secure his vote in Florida and is fighting to win Texas. His campaign had hoped that they had a “lock” on these states and would, therefore, not have to spend precious time and energy in them. Perot, a Texan, broke that lock and Clinton has gained enough support in both Florida and Texas that Bush cannot take these states for granted and must work to win them.

To counter this, the President has decided to challenge Clinton in California. His challenge is not meant to necessarily win the state, but is meant to force Clinton’s campaign to focus more resources there.

At the same time, the real battleground states are the industrial mid-West states of Michigan and Ohio, the other mid-Western states of Missouri, Iowa, and three additional states: North Carolina in the South, New Jersey in the East, and Colorado in the West. These are all must-win states for George Bush and states that Clinton must deny him if he is to block a Bush reelection.

To understand the dynamics of the remainder of this year’s election, following the national polls will not be very helpful. The key is in following the state-by-state strategies of the two campaigns and each state’s local polls. These, too, will change with time but at this point Bill Clinton seems to have a clear lead in enough states to give him 202 electoral votes—not enough to win but more electoral votes than any Democrat (other than Carter) has won since 1964. George Bush, at this time, seems to have a hold on 70 electoral votes, with the rest too close to call. These numbers may well change in the coming weeks, and they will be followed down to election eve in this column.

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