WASHINGTON—GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s performance in the debates has elevated him to presidential status, and while he polls ahead in the popular vote the week before the election, President Obama appears to have the lead in electoral votes.
And that’s what counts, say political analysts.
“The news says that Romney is ascendant after a terrible summer and September,” ABC News Political Director Amy Walter told a forum at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., Oct 24. “But people don’t elect the president, the Electoral College elects the president, and the president has an edge in the Electoral College race.”
Unlike some democracies that elect leaders through a “one man-one vote” system, the U.S. president and vice president are elected at the state level through state-nominated electors collectively known as the Electoral College.
There are 538 electors in total, each state allocated electors according to the combined number of U.S. House and Senate members. California, for example, has 53 representatives, and with the two senators allocated to each state, has a total of 55 electors.
Seven states: Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, Montana, and the Dakotas, plus the District of Columbia (D.C.), have one representative and the required two senators, giving them a minimum of 3 electoral votes.
The District of Columbia is the only nonstate allocated electors, while territories like Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico remain unrepresented.
Electors are selected by state party officials and are largely anonymous, represented on the ballot as a party block. This year voters will select either the Democratic block “Electors for Barack Obama and Joseph Biden,” or Republican “Electors for George [Mitt] Romney and Paul Ryan.”
Critics have argued that the Electoral College system gives swing states disproportionate influence in presidential elections. Supporters say it is a defining feature of U.S. federalism and protects the rights of smaller states.
In most states it’s winner take all. For example in California, the country’s most populous state, Republicans may get 45 percent of the vote, but with Democrats dominant Obama is likely to win all the electoral votes, said Thomas Beale, election analyst with the Congressional Research Service.
“People don’t elect the president, the Electoral College elects the president,”
—Amy Walter, ABC News
Speaking at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C., Beale says despite the distortions in the electoral process, the discrepancy between the popular vote and the Electoral College has become an issue only three times in the 56 U.S. elections under the present system.
On two of those occasion however, the country was polarized “with great political consequence.”
The first was soon after the Civil War in 1876, when it appeared Republicans might lose the presidency to the Democrats.
In order to see Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes as president, Republicans committed to “the Great Compromise of 1877.”
“Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in the south, which meant the withdrawal of federal troops, which had been enforcing civil and voting rights for our newly enfranchised African-Americans,” Beale explained.
What followed was a 90-year period in which “blacks lost most of their civil and all of their political rights in much of the South,” Beale said adding, “So it’s a very important election in our history.”
The second occasion was recently, in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but Republican George Bush, in a contentious count in Florida, won that state and its 25 electoral votes, giving him the minimum 271 electoral votes and the Electoral College to win the presidency.
Charlie Cook, political analyst with the National Journal, believes there is a 10 to 15 percent chance this could occur again in the current election.
“If that happens, Romney would be the one likely to come out on the popular vote side and Obama on the electoral vote side,” he said at the Aspen Institute forum.
Cook attributes the president’s strength to the Obama campaign’s strategy of focusing an intense negative television advertising blitz in battleground states, depicting Romney as a financial elite out-of-touch with the common man.
“There is a lot of scar tissue in the six or seven swing states that saw the brunt of the Bain Capital-plant closings-outsourcing-Cayman islands ads,” Cook said.
“The Romney campaign made a huge error by not going in early and trying to tell people about Romney and project a positive image. He was a blank piece of paper. You want to create a reservoir of goodwill and Teflon coating before the slime hits, and the Romney campaign didn’t do that,” Cook said. “So after the first debate, Romney’s numbers likely went up in all 50 states, but there are six or seven they went up less in because of that scar tissue.”
Traditionally it has been the Democrats that have gained the popular vote, Cook said.
“Normally, a Democrat would be better off with the popular vote because they run up the score in enormously populous states like California and New York,” he said. “The only really populous state the Republicans run up the score in is Texas, and so Democrats waste more votes than Republicans do.”
While it still could go either way, Cook suspects the tables could turn in this election, leaving members of both parties questioning their former positions on the Electoral College system.
“I think all of the Republicans that saw great benefit in the Electoral College back in 2000 may be rethinking that and vice-versa the Democrats on the other side,” he said.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.