Election Math

Terry Eastland | The Weekly Standard | Friday, March 19, 2004

Election Math

WITH MORE THAN SEVEN MONTHS between now and Election Day, President Bush and John Kerry already are in full battle cry. Once the smoke over this election clears (which, last time, took a long time), we will have the answers to such questions as: Will Bush suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover?

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (indeed named for Hoover), notes that six of the nine elected incumbent presidents since 1912--Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton--won a second term. Two of the three who didn't win--Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush--faced a third-party challenge. The other non-winner, Hoover, lost in a head-to-head contest with Roosevelt in 1932.

No third-party candidate threatens to take votes from Bush. Yet it is hard to imagine that he will lose to Kerry in a landslide, as Hoover did to Mr. Roosevelt (472 to 59 votes in the Electoral College). That isn't to say that Bush will win, only that if he loses, the margin is likely to be narrow, because the electorate remains so evenly divided.

Will Kerry win without winning a single Southern state? No Democrat elected president has won fewer than five Southern states. In 2000, Al Gore lost every one of the 11 states that formed the Old Confederacy. Indeed, he lost the entire "Greater South"--those 11 plus culturally kindred Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. And yet he narrowly lost to Bush in the Electoral College, 271 to 266 (with 1 Gore delegate abstaining).

Kerry could travel a non-Southern route to the White House. Granted, reapportionment has favored Bush, for if he wins the same states as in 2000, he receives 278 electoral votes. Even so, if, among the Bush states, only Missouri (11 electoral votes) or Ohio (20) shifts to Kerry, the Democrat will be sworn in next year.

Will Bush win without winning Ohio? No Republican ever has been elected president without capturing the Buckeye State, which Bush won in 2000 by just 166,735 votes (3.57 percent). Since 2000, Ohio has lost 250,000 jobs. And for the first time, the president's approval ratings in the state have dropped below 50 percent. The Ohio GOP is working overtime to register new voters, and Bush made his 15th visit to the state last week. You can expect Kerry to be there often. Of all the so-called battleground states, Ohio may prove the most hotly contested.

WILL RALPH NADER derail Kerry? In 2000, Nader ran as the Green Party candidate. He got 2.7 percent of the national vote. In Florida, which Bush won by 537 votes, Nader received 97,488 votes. And in New Hampshire, which Bush won by 7,211 votes, he got 22,188. Gore supporters believe that if Nader hadn't run, their man would have won those states--and the presidency. One reason to think Nader won't hurt Kerry's chances is that, unlike in 2000, liberal voters are united--at least right now--in their desire to turn out of office a president they plainly dislike. Voting for Nader won't achieve that.

Will Kerry and Bush wind up tied? Don't rule it out. Assume the same outcomes by party as in 2000, except that New Hampshire (four electoral votes) and Nevada (five) go for Kerry. You would have the two candidates tied at 269 electoral votes each. You can work the math other ways, using the 9 to 18 states considered "in play," and produce the same tie. Which would throw the election to the (likely remaining Republican) House of Representatives, which then would choose Bush.

Litigation? Let's not think of that. But what about this:

Will Bush win in a landslide? A landslide means the winner has at least 55 percent of the vote. Given the evenly divided electorate and absent big events that might produce a big shift in Bush's favor, it is hard to imagine a Bush vote total that high.

Yet as Whalen reminds us, our election history shows that when incumbent presidents are re-elected, they pick up an average of five more states. Whalen calculates that if Bush increases his vote total by 2.5 percent nationally, he picks up five additional states--Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Will that happen? The answer, like the other answers, is to be determined.


Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.


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