Numbers can't predict election

January 03, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- How odd of God, whose mercy is supposedly infinite, to put an extra day in presidential election years, as though to prolong the punishment. But this will be only the fifth "double open" (both parties' nominations open because no incumbent president is running) in the 18 elections between 1932 and 2000. And it may produce the first close election since 1976.

The winnowing of candidates in 1999 seems to have produced two two-man races. Unless New Jersey's Bill Bradley is elected, this will be the 10th consecutive election in which the winner (George Bush, John McCain or Al Gore) comes from the South or the West.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, there were 11 million cell phone users. Today there are 83 million. To whom are they jabbering? Perhaps to their brokers. Does that mean the economy will be the decisive factor? Hardly.

Last week it was reported that consumer confidence is higher than at any time since October 1968. Note that date. In November 1968 a serving Democratic Vice President (Hubert Humphrey) lost a close presidential race. That year war abroad and cultural fraying at home -- riots, surging crime and two assassinations -- ushered in the era of social issues generally trumping economic concerns.

Five years later, the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade guaranteed the longevity of that era, which continues.

Because of Ross Perot, Bill Clinton became the third president to win two terms without ever winning a majority of the popular vote. (Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, both Democrats, were the others.) But in 1996 he lost Colorado and Georgia by just one percentage point and Virginia by two. A shift of just 47,493 votes in those states would have put his electoral vote total over 400.

In 1992 and 1996 Mr. Clinton carried the entire Northeast, the first time that region had voted for one party's candidate in two consecutive elections since the Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in 1920 and 1924.

But the big prize is California, where in 1996 Bob Dole won just 38.2 percent, and where in 1998 the Republican candidate for governor won just 38.4 percent. With 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the 270 needed to win the White House, California has a larger percentage of the electoral votes than any state has had since New York immediately after the Civil War.

Beginning in 1948, when Gov. Earl Warren was the Republican vice presidential nominee, the Republicans have had Californians on the national ticket in eight of 13 elections (Warren; Richard Nixon five times; Ronald Reagan twice) and won six of them (all but 1948 and 1960).

There is no likely Californian for the Republican vice presidential nomination. The Democratic nominee could choose Gov. Gray Davis, whose job current job approval is a robust 56 percent.

Political analyst Charles Cook notes that nine states -- Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada -- have voted for the winner in at least 11 of 12 elections, 1952-1996.

Seven states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana) are six for six, 1976-96.

The states where the 1976-96 results most closely tracked the national tally were Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey (all with a 2 percentage point difference, or less).

In 1996 Messrs. Clinton and Dole each got about 46 percent of the Southern vote. Mr. Cook concludes that as America's population is becoming more diverse, its political culture is becoming more homogenous.

That, combined with ideological dissolution -- no liberal any longer really believes the welfare state is menaced by conservatives; no conservative believes the welfare state has been imposed on an unwilling public -- makes this a year without a map.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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