Where the votes really count Winner may not have the most popular votes

October 29, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- This week, the politicians and the news media are frantically trying to figure out exactly how large a lead Democrat Bill Clinton has over President Bush.

On Election Day, it might not matter. In fact, it's entirely possible that the next president won't even come in first in the national popular vote.

That's because U.S. presidential campaigns are decided in the Electoral College, where each state has a number of votes equal to the number of members it has in both houses of Congress.

With only minor exceptions, each state's electors vote as a bloc -- meaning that the U.S. presidential race is not a national referendum at all, but rather 51 separate elections, in which a candidate who carries that state gets all that state's electoral votes.

Thus, narrow victories in the right combination of states could lead to an electoral vote landslide for a candidate who might not even receive 50 percent of the vote. This last happened in 1912, which, like 1992, was a three-man race.

When Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate that year, he split the Republican vote, relegating President William Howard Taft to a third-place finish -- and helping Democrat Woodrow Wilson into the White House. Mr. Wilson received only 42 percent of the popular vote, but won 435 of a possible 531 electoral votes.

In 1968, Richard M. Nixon, also running in a three-way race, received only 43.4 percent of the popular vote -- to 42.7 percent for Hubert H. Humphrey and 13.5 percent for George Wallace -- but won by a relatively comfortable 110-vote margin in the Electoral College.

This year, Democrat Bill Clinton hopes to duplicate Mr. Wilson's and Mr. Nixon's feat. If current state-by-state polling holds up in the last week, he will.

But the most controversial aspect of the Electoral College system is still that a president can actually lose the popular vote and still be elected president.

This has happened three times in the nation's history, the last time being 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison was out-polled in the popular vote by Democrat Grover Cleveland, 48.6 percent to 47.8 percent, but won the White House by a rather comfortable electoral vote margin of 233 to 168. Mr. Harrison was overwhelmed by Mr. Cleveland in the South, but won key states in the Midwest by narrow margins.

In other words, it's not only how many votes you get in a presidential election, it's where you get them. Some believe that if Mr. Bush stages a final-week push, he could win this way, too.

In 1992, that scenario might involve the president losing California and New York, for instance, by 1 million votes each, while carrying Ohio, Texas, Florida and Michigan, by, say an average of 75,000 votes each.

Net deficit in popular votes: 1.7 million.

Net gain in the Electoral College, where it counts: nine.

In 1992, there are 538 electoral votes, with a simple majority, 270, needed for victory. If independent Ross Perot manages to carry some states, the possibility exists that no candidate would have a majority of electoral votes.

If that happened, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, where the newly elected Congress would choose the president.

This last happened in 1825, when the House had to choose between four candidates, all of the same "Democrat-Republican" party. The four were John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay.

Leaders in the House are not eager to choose the president this way in 1992, believing that Congress' reputation could only suffer from the intrigue and the behind-the-scenes horse trading that such a high-stakes congressional vote could entail.

If Mr. Perot cannot throw the election in the House -- and that appears unlikely -- what about his chances in the Electoral College? For years, third-party and independent candidates have held out hope that the electors in the college, all stricken by sudden pangs of conscience, might pick the person they knew deep down was best for the job. But that's unlikely, because the electors are nominated by the candidates or political party they are pledged to support.

A few states do not legally bind the electors, and there is usually "a faithless" elector every four years who votes his or her conscience.

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