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The coming Electoral College crisis

Will Obama get miore votes...and lose

There's been a lot of chatter about how the Democrats and their unelected superdelegates simply won't nominate Hillary Clinton if Barack Obama ends up with more elected, or pledged delegates, and with more popular votes, if you rely upon unfuzzy math. The logic -- and in this rare case it is sound logic -- is that Obama's core supporters, including blacks but also those enthusiastic under-25s who've been brought into the process -- will revolt if they see the party bosses take it away from a man poised to be America's first non-white president.

In the end, that's why most people feel confident now that Obama has the nomination in the bag. But few have focused on a much more realistic possibility -- that Obama will get more popular votes than the Republican John McCain, in the fall and still lose in the Electoral College.

I think that would be a catastrophe that engender even more cynicism about our politics and our government than ever -- if that's possible at this point -- and after an uptick in voter interest in the 2000s would drive millions of Americans away from the process for good. Whether they would turn toward apathy or rebellion or something else would be anyone's guess.

Going into the Memorial Day weekend, the Politico had an interesting look at the scenario, and the increasing confidence among GOP strategists that despite an unpopular war and what's becoming the worst economy in a generation, McCain might really pull this off:

But the contours of the electoral map, combined with McCain's unique strengths and the nature of Obama's possible vulnerabilities, have led to a cautious and muted optimism that McCain could actually surpass Bush's 35-electoral-vote victory in 2004. Though they expect he would finish far closer to Obama in the popular vote, the thinking is that he could win by as many 50 electoral votes.
— By post-war election standards, that margin is unusually small. Yet it’s considerably larger than either Bush’s 2004 victory or his five-electoral-vote win in 2000. “A win by 40 or 50 electoral votes would be an astonishing upset, just a watershed event with all the issues that were stacked against him from the very beginning,” said David Woodard, a Republican pollster and Clemson University political science professor. “But it could happen. I know this seems like wishful thinking by Republicans. I’m thinking that Republicans could win by 40 electoral votes. But I dare not say it,” he added. “Certainly what is possible could come to pass.”

The story goes on to suggest that Obama might get more popular votes than McCain and lose. With November still more than five months away, the situation is hard to predict, but I agree that could happen, if:

1. Obama outperforms recent Democrats like John Kerry and Al Gore (who also won the popular vote, as you may remember) in some of the bluest states like California and New York, where there will be less resistance to a candidate with Obama's multi-cultural background, and in states like Vermont, Connecticut and Washington State with big numbers of college-educated whites. That won't change the Electoral College math one bit.

2. Likewise, some experts think that -- given Obama's strong showing in primaries across the Deep South -- the Democrat has energized black voters in the states with large African-American minorities. What that means is that Obama may score a lot more votes in places like Mississippi or South Carolina than recent Democrats, but still not enough to carry these heavily red states. The Electoral College math, unchanged.

3. The "game-changer" (to use the great cliche of '08) is Appalachia. Obama's failure to make any inroads here is well-documented. This problem for the Democrats is that Appalachia intersects several key swing states. So while Obama gains votes in the places that doesn't matter, he loses votes in the places where it could. We can all agree that West Virginia, once a battleground state, is pretty much off the table for Obama, but the bigger problem is Ohio and Pennsylvania, both with large swatches of Appalachia as well. Kerry and Gore lost their elections when they lost Ohio, but a reversal in Pennsylvania, which the Democratic candidates won in 2000 and 2004, could be a fatal flaw in the party's 2008 strategy.

This means you're going to see the fall candidates in Pennsylvania A LOT, especially in Philadelphia and the suburbs because that's where Obama needs to overcome his weakness in the western part of the state. It also means that Obama is going to focus a lot on his best chance for gaining support in what has long been a band of red states, and that is in the Mountain West. That's where he's at now:

The underlying goal of Obama's trip this week through New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado is to lay claim to a region that Obama views as one of his best opportunities to pick off states in November.

"We want to send a message now that we are going to go after them and I expect to win them," Obama told reporters after laying a wreath at a veterans' memorial.

Obama's political strategists have done some amazing work in securing the nomination, so it's hard to argue against their plans for the fall, but his current strategy still hinges on winning Ohio and Virginia and not losing Pennsylvania, and that may not happen.

It was unfair -- but legitimate -- for Bush to win the presidency in 2000 without the backing of the most voters, just as it would have been unfair but legitimate if Kerry had picked up extra votes to take Ohio and the election as Bush was winning the popular tally four years ago. But I think that two minority (as in votes, that is) presidents in eight years would be a crippling blow to the American body politic. When presidential votes cast from the barrios of East L.A. or the Mississippi Delta don't count as much as the bedroom communities of Columbus, Ohio, it's time to look at changing the system.

The worst part is that reform still probably won't happen. A serious push to change the Electoral College would be spun, perhaps successfully, by the GOP as sour grapes by the Democrats. And how could a Consitutional amendment to overturn the Electoral College ever will the backing of three-quarters of the states, when it is small states that benefit from the current system?

Four decades ago, people fought and people died across the Deep South for the principle of one person, one vote that had been denied largely to African-Americans. The irony of candidate like Barack Obama receiving the most votes and losing could be too much for this nation to bear.