Ah, but voters don't elect a president -- the Electoral College does

March 25, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are understandably pleased by a new round of opinion polls showing President Clinton leading Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole by double-digit margins at a time when the Republican nominee-presumptive should be riding high.

The surveys also show that the president's favorable ratings have been rising steadily while the Republicans have been directing most of their fire at one another.

This is obviously good news for the White House and Democrats in Congress preoccupied with their own survival next November. Six months ago, Mr. Clinton appeared vulnerable to almost any reasonably respectable Republican nominee.

But the most astute Democrats recognize that these polling numbers are both fragile and misleading. Presidential elections are decided in the Electoral College, and any Democrat faces formidable obstacles because so many southern and western states are so determinedly hostile to the national Democratic Party.

Mr. Clinton demonstrated four years ago, with the help of Ross Perot, that the so-called ''Republican lock'' on the Electoral College is not unbreakable. But it does require the Democratic nominee to win almost all the close ones to amass the 270 electoral votes needed.

The Clinton base is made up of 12 states and the District of Columbia with 167 electoral votes, 103 short of a majority. They are California, New York, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Some of these are obviously subject to dispute. Iowa, for example, could easily go Republican, but it is the one farm state most inclined to be Democratic in presidential elections. Tennessee, although trending heavily Republican in recent elections, is the home state of Vice President Gore.

The Republican base includes 24 states with 209 electoral votes Texas, Florida, Nevada, Idaho, Alaska, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Again, there is room for quibbling. Last time Mr. Clinton won Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont, but they seem out of his reach today.

If these allocations are roughly accurate, 14 states with 162 electoral votes will decide the election. They include Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, Connecticut, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Delaware and Maine.

To reach 270, the president probably needs to win at least four of the five largest -- Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey -- and two or three of the smaller states. Four years ago Mr. Clinton won all 14 of these states in capturing 270 electoral votes, but not one of them would be considered a ''safe'' bet at this stage of this campaign.

The wild card in these calculations is the potential of a Perot candidacy. In 1992 most of these 14 states swung to Mr. Clinton because support for Ross Perot came preponderantly from Republicans. It is not hard to imagine the same thing happening this time even if Mr. Perot is unable to match the 19 percent of the total vote he received in 1992.

A different dynamic

The dynamics of this campaign obviously are quite different. The issue then was President Bush's failure to convince voters he could deal with economic concerns. Mr. Clinton won by promising a new approach and by presenting himself as a ''different'' -- less liberal -- Democrat.

But the president is no longer convincing to conservative southern voters, as state polls across the region show repeatedly and as the 1994 midterm elections demonstrated so graphically.

The political landscape does change, so the president may have opportunities in some states that were not there last time. Some Democratic professionals believe, for instance, that Mr. Clinton can be competitive in Florida this time because older voters may be alienated by Republican attempts to cut back on Medicare.

But there may be some wishful thinking in such estimates. For any Democrat, the road to 270 electoral votes is hazardous.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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