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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Polls Show Victory Could Come Without Winning Popular Vote

November 03, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Diverging trends in national and state polls are adding another level of uncertainty to the closest presidential race in decades--and inspiring speculation that Al Gore might lose the popular vote yet still win an electoral college majority that places him in the White House.

Over the last several days, national polls have largely converged, providing Republican George W. Bush a small but steady lead of 1 to 5 percentage points. Yet the latest surveys in critical battleground states still show Gore running well enough in most of them--particularly Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida--to remain within reach of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

The disparity between the national numbers and the state results reflects an intriguing dynamic in the race: Bush is generally further ahead in states where he leads (especially in the South and Mountain West) than Gore is in the states where he leads. That pattern enlarges Bush's margin in polls measuring the popular vote, even as polls in the key battleground states show a closer race or give Gore an edge.

Most analysts believe that in the end the closest states will tip toward the winner of the popular vote, as they usually do. But the split between the national and state numbers opens the outside possibility that Gore could lose the popular vote yet still squeeze out an electoral college majority with narrow victories in several states, especially the pivotal trio of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.

"There's a 30% chance that Gore loses the popular vote and wins the electoral vote," Democratic strategist James Carville said.

In a paper released Thursday, two Columbia University political scientists even calculate that Gore could win an electoral college majority as long as he stays within 2.2 percentage points of Bush in the popular vote.

"Gore would be the favorite as long as he doesn't lose by more than that amount," co-author Robert Erikson said. "The reason is that most of the battleground states are a little bit more pro-Gore than the nation overall."

More Than a Century Since Last Split Verdict

There hasn't been such a split verdict since 1888--when Democratic President Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral college decisively to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Similar split outcomes occurred in the 1824 and 1876 presidential elections.

But today it's unknown how Americans--many of whom are only dimly aware of the electoral college's workings--would react to seeing the loser of the popular vote occupy the Oval Office.

Thomas E. Mann, a political scientist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, predicts that, while the public would accept the results, there would be an immediate demand to replace the electoral college with a direct national vote.

"We live in such a plebiscitary world, a world very different from 1888, that I think you simply can't sustain" the current procedure, Mann said.

USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said no legal basis could be found to challenge an election in which one candidate won the popular vote and the other won the electoral college.

"The Constitution says that it is the electoral college that determines who is the president," Chemerinsky said. "It leaves no doubt."

While concurring in that assessment, one prominent Republican lawyer said a lawsuit might still be filed as part of an effort to pressure the actual electoral college "electors" to switch their vote to the popular-vote winner.

Nothing in the Constitution requires the electors, who meet in December, to vote for the winner of their state. About half the states have legal penalties for electors who disregard the results in their state, but no one has ever been prosecuted for doing so, according to a recent analysis on the political Web site Voter.com.

Electors Usually Are Party Loyalists

In fact, seven times in the last 52 years "faithless electors" have deviated from their state results to back another candidate. In 1976, for instance, one elector from a state carried by President Ford voted for Ronald Reagan. If Bush won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, Republicans might launch a campaign urging individual electors to switch, some believe.

Such a campaign would face long odds, though, since the electors are chosen by their state parties, usually from their most loyal workers and supporters.

Bush aides discount the possibility of a split verdict, largely because they say their polling shows no disparity between the national and state trends. In that polling, Bush holds leads equal to or greater than his national advantage in most of the key battleground states, they say.

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