Recent national polls showing presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry running ahead of George W. Bush in the presidential race have been cause for celebration for Democrats and progressives. But much of the commentary regarding the presidential primaries has failed to grasp fundamental aspects of how our presidential system works. And not understanding our rules can lead to major tactical errors.
For instance, following Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry's first-place finish in several southern primaries, many pundits hailed this as proof that Kerry can be competitive against George W. Bush in the South. Yet Kerry's wins may simply mean that many Democrats in the South -- approximately half of whom are African American -- are fairly liberal. But they also are nearly always outvoted by the Republicans and independents in the South, which is why the Republicans win so many elections there these days, particularly statewide elections.
In fact, it may be true that some candidate like John Edwards or Wesley Clark would have a better chance of giving Bush a run for his money in southern and swing states. Because given a choice between Edwards or Bush, most Democrats who voted for Kerry would be passionately anti-Bush enough to also vote for Edwards -- but Edwards might do better among southern moderates who are skeptical of Democrats from Massachusetts. In Wisconsin's primary, Edwards' strong second-place finish was fueled by the highest Republican turnout of the primary season, attesting to Edwards' ability to attract these swing voters.
So some of the sighs of relief on the part of Democrats, both voters and party leaders, in quickly choosing their nominee Kerry may be entirely misplaced.
In addition, one major point missing from the punditry discussion is that, when it comes to the presidential election, national polls don't tell us a whole lot. That includes the recent polls showing Kerry running competitively against Bush. Here's why:
The structure of our electoral college method of electing the president means that each state is fought out as an individual, winner-take-all contest. That means the highest vote-getter wins 100% of the electoral votes from that state, even if they have less than a majority of the vote. And most states already are locked up for one party or the other.
States like Texas, New York, California, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Mississippi -- in fact, most of our states -- already are done deals. Voters there don't even need to show up to the polls, since they are locked down in a state that is a card-carrying member of either Red or Blue America. We can comfortably predict, right now, who is going to win over 70% of the states.
That means the election will boil down to only about 15 states. And it will be a handful of undecided swing voters in those 15 states, combined with voter mobilization, that will decide the presidency. For progressives, this should be kind of sobering, particularly when you realize those states are ones like Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia and Florida, and the swing voters in those states are not very progressive.
If Kerry's gains on Bush mostly have occurred in the Blue states won by Al Gore, that just means he will win those states by a greater margin. But Kerry needs to win more states than Al Gore, not just more voters. Voter distribution is critically important.
Our presidential election is not a national election, it turns out, but a series of state elections. And each side has their polls and focus groups that help them plot their strategy in these individual states. Polling in the battleground states would be more revealing than national polls -- just ask Al Gore why he's not president, after winning a half million more votes than Bush in 2000. Information from the battleground states also will help voters understand how our presidential election system really works -- and how irrelevant most of us are in deciding the next president because we don't live in one of the 15 battleground states.
That means with the Democratic presidential nomination all but over, the race now is about who the vice presidential candidate will be, and which vice presidential candidate will help the Democrats in these handful of swing states. If the Democrats manage to win all the states they won in 2000 -- a very real possibility -- they only need to pick up one more state like Florida, Arkansas or Missouri to win. Candidates like Wesley Clark or John Edwards could help the Democrats win their home states of Arkansas or North Carolina. Dick Gephardt could help in Missouri, and Sen. Bob Graham in Florida. So look for a candidate like them as the Democrats' vice presidential nominee.
And the next time you read the latest national poll, picture instead 50 individual states, each fought as individual, winner-take-all contests, with only a handful deciding the next president. Hopefully the media will start providing the information and analysis we need to understand our presidential system.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of Americas Winner Take All Politics, www.FixingElections.com. Rob Richie is executive director of the center. Write them c/o The Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912.