College for Dunces

The electoral college is a constitutional time bomb that has been ticking for more than a century. It finally exploded on election day. Unkind as it is to say so--hasn't Al Gore suffered enough?--it's only fitting that it blew up in the Democrats' face.

The explosion, of course, was Gore's apparent loss to George W. Bush in the electoral college even though he won the national popular vote by a margin of around 100,000--the same plurality by which John F. Kennedy surpassed Richard Nixon in 1960. Such an overturning of the voters' will has not occurred since 1888, when Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison unseated President Grover Cleveland despite Cleveland's having been favored by substantially more voters. Harrison's victory tainted his presidency and set the stage for a rematch four years later, which Cleveland handily won.

The reason this year's outcome is fitting is that the strategy for winning presidential elections that the Democrats have been using with disturbing frequency in recent years backfired on them. Of the past six Democratic presidential nominees, Gore is the third to lose the presidency in exactly the way he attempted to win it--namely, by conceding the popular vote in dozens of states to the Republicans and trying to squeak through to victory by winning enough big states to carry the electoral college.

George McGovern was the first modern Democrat to try this strategy. He is also the easiest to forgive. Trailing President Nixon in 1972 by double-digit margins in the polls, McGovern spent nearly all of his time and money during the final month of the campaign trying to win the dozen largest states, which together have more than enough electoral votes to choose the president. He failed dismally. In fact, when political scientists point to the electoral college's tendency to "magnify" the popular vote--that is, to give the winning presidential candidate a larger percentage of the electoral vote than of the national popular vote--the 1972 election is one of their prime examples. Nixon won 61 percent of the popular vote but 97 percent of the electoral vote.

Michael Dukakis was next. As his 1988 presidential campaign foundered, Dukakis ended up taking a page out of McGovern's playbook. In mid October, abandoning all hope of winning a broad popular majority against Vice President George Bush, Dukakis adopted an 18-state strategy to amass a narrow electoral college victory. Scarcely a moment of the Massachusetts governor's time and, more important, scarcely a dollar of his campaign fund went into the other 32 states from that point on.

Dukakis's strategy failed almost as badly as McGovern's, although not before giving the Bush campaign a major scare. But what would have happened if the strategy had succeeded? Would a president who had won by gaming the system have been able to govern? (Harrison wasn't; nor was John Quincy Adams, who was elected against Andrew Jackson with a minority of votes in 1824.) To be sure, candidates don't make the rules; they only play by them. But for many years, Americans have come to expect that the right way to win a presidential election is to seek a majority of the people's votes and count on the electoral vote to follow.

Gore's prospects of winning the 2000 election in the accepted way--that is, by seeking votes everywhere (well, maybe not Idaho and Wyoming) and racking up both popular and electoral vote majorities--seemed much better than McGovern's or Dukakis's had been, especially from the vantage point of late summer and early fall. His acceptance speech at the Democratic convention had been a smash, and the debates loomed as the arena in which he would polish off his inexperienced and not terribly quick-witted opponent for good.

Things did not work out that way. Gore, ahead in the polls by around 5 percentage points before the three presidential debates, stumbled out of them 5 points behind. When this gap remained stubbornly unbridgeable, Gore strategists quietly embraced the McGovern-Dukakis strategy. By election eve, most of them were explaining, off the record, how they planned to pull out an electoral-vote majority by winning almost all of the big states narrowly while Bush was carrying the small states overwhelmingly. They brushed off questions about how such a victory could avoid being tarnished.

What no one expected, of course, is what happened. Gore won the national popular vote. Yet the likelihood is that on January 20--two weeks after the joint session of Congress at which Gore, as president of the Senate, will open the electoral votes submitted by the states and announce his own defeat--it is Bush who will take the oath of office as president.

The ironic--dare one say just?--roots of Gore's plight extend further back than his and McGovern's and Dukakis's defeats. In 1969, in response to a bipartisan initiative by Democratic Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana and the Nixon administration, Congress seriously considered a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the electoral college with a system of direct election by the voters. The sponsors' main concern, which flowed directly from the 1968 election, was that a George Wallace-style third-party extremist with a strong enough regional base to win several states' electoral votes could throw a presidential election into the House of Representatives or, perhaps worse, throw his electors to the Republican or Democratic nominee in return for concessions on policies and appointments.

As had been the case for years, public opinion polls at the time showed wide but shallow support for direct election. Then as now, around three-fourths of voters found the electoral college to be densely complicated and did not understand why they couldn't elect presidents with their votes the same way they elect congressmen and governors. But--sorry, civics teachers--electoral college reform has never been the sort of home-and-hearth issue that motivates many people to pick up the phone or take pen in hand. Members of Congress have thus been free to vote their own preferences without fear of reprisal at the polls.

In 1969 small-state legislators opposed direct election in the understandable but mistaken belief that every state's guaranteed three electoral votes (around half of 1 percent of the 538 total electoral votes) made small states more important in presidential elections than would their share of the popular vote. But candidates are not going to care much about Alaska, Delaware, and South Dakota no matter how presidents are elected.

A few conservatives joined the small-staters in opposition to Bayh's direct-election proposal, mostly on the grounds that state-by-state voting in the electoral college is a bulwark of states' rights and federalism. This argument is less mistaken than misguided. The federal principle is already deeply embodied in congressional elections, in which each state gets two senators just because it is a state. But what does federalism have to do with the presidency, the one part of the government that is designed to represent the nation as a whole rather than as an amalgam of states?

The margin of defeat for electoral college reform, however--both in 1969 and 10 years later, when Congress revisited the issue at the behest of President Jimmy Carter--was provided by big-state Democratic liberals. They argued (although seldom in public) that they liked the electoral college not only because their states' large blocs of votes attract to them almost all of the presidential candidates' time and attention, but also because liberal constituencies tend to be concentrated in the major cities: African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and unionized workers. Conservative supporters of the electoral college at least had a principled rationale for their position, however errant it may have been. Democratic liberals had little basis for opposing reform but political self-interest. When Bayh's and later Carter's proposals for direct election were killed by Congress, Democratic fingerprints were all over the murder weapon.

The case for allowing voters to elect the president in the same way they elect virtually every other official at every level of government is strong verging on self-evident. Indeed, liberal progressives won the theoretical argument years ago, when they successfully advanced the cause of direct election of senators (originally, state legislatures chose them) and of primaries to nominate candidates. To be sure, some problems with direct election of the president would need to be worked out. Votes would need to be tabulated through a national network, for example, so that recounts in close elections could be made expeditiously. To ensure that a president is not elected by a small minority of voters, a prompt run-off election between the top two vote getters would be needed when no candidate receives, say, 40 percent of the national popular vote.

Technical problems like these can be solved if the political will is there. The more difficult task will be getting Democratic candidates for president to stop gaming the system and to embrace the challenge of winning voter support. Even harder will be persuading Democratic liberals in Congress to put aside partisan interests and propose a direct-election constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. ยค