Electoral college realities

April 10, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- This is the silly season in the presidential campaign. It is like spring training for baseball teams when anything seems possible.

The campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas are purveying ideas about the shape of the race that are either uninformed nonsense or deliberate misinformation. Thus, Mr. Gore and his managers are behaving as if there were a realistic chance that he could carry Florida in the general election in November. Mr. Bush and his strategists are taking a similar tack about California.

Neither projection is realistic. Florida has become a reliably Republican state in presidential elections except in very special circumstances, as was the case when President Clinton carried it against a Republican campaign just going through the motions four years ago.

Similarly, California has become almost as reliably Democratic, helped along this time around by the image the Republicans there have projected of themselves as hostile to the ambitions of minorities. Affirmative action is a meaningful issue in California.

There are, of course, circumstances in which either of these states could become closely contested. In Florida the Democratic ticket might have a chance if, for example, the Republicans allowed them to exploit the Social Security issue as Mr. Clinton was able to do in 1996.

So far, however, Mr. Bush has shown he understands how important those older voters can be and has been quick to stake out what appears to be safe ground.

The prospect of the Republicans carrying those 54 electoral votes in California appears to rest almost solely on some general failure by Mr. Gore that swings the American people decidedly against putting him in the White House for the next four years. In other words, if Mr. Bush can win California, he is probably on the way to an electoral college landslide.

The opinion polls suggest that the far more likely prospect is a conventionally close presidential election in which the states follow a largely predictable pattern -- meaning not a landslide like those suffered by Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Democrat George S. McGovern in 1972.

This means that Republican Bush would carry the Sun Belt, including his own Texas and Florida plus all the other states across the South and Southwest. He also could be expected to win the mountain states and such scattered Republican bastions as Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana and New Hampshire.

At the same time, Mr. Gore would be the favorite in California and New York plus most of the smaller states on both coasts and a few isolated patches in which Democrats often prosper such as Iowa, Minnesota, Hawaii and Vermont.

Thus, in the end the election would be decided, as most are, by what used to be called the Rust Belt -- from east to west, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois -- plus perhaps Wisconsin and Missouri. The key to amassing the necessary 270 electoral votes would be winning four of the big five.

On the face of it, this should not be a daunting task for a Republican nominee. These states have been electing and reelecting popular Republican governors for a generation now. But these are also states that swung to President Clinton in large measure because of resistance to the image of the national Republican Party.

All across these states, moderate Republicans and independents, rejected the definition of "family values" written by people like Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson. This was particularly the case among voters in the suburbs around cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. So the imperative for Mr. Bush is finding a way to reassure these voters without forfeiting his base among cultural conservatives elsewhere.

But Mr. Gore has some distance to travel as well. For political professionals, the message in the bottom line is that both current national polls showing the race essentially even is that the vice president has not yet sold himself to the electorate despite the booming health of the economy and his advantages of experience.

George Bush and Al Gore have much to accomplish in their campaigns before they start plotting to turn the tables in California or Florida. Right now, that is a pipe dream.

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

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