Next Tuesday, Americans will go to the polls – not, in theory, to elect
a president, but to elect members of the electoral college, who in turn
will select the president. This archaic system, some of whose foibles
were revealed in the 2000 election, makes prediction a tricky business.
Each state gets a certain number of votes in the electoral college,
varying according to population but weighted in favor of the smaller
states. Whichever presidential candidate wins that state gets all of
those votes (with the exception of two small states, Maine and
Nebraska, which vote by congressional district as well as statewide).
Whoever puts together a majority (270 votes) in the electoral college,
becomes president.

Australians are familiar with the idea that the party winning a
majority of the vote might not win the election (it happened here as
recently as 1998). And we complain that those who happen to live in
marginal seats get more than their fair share of attention from
governments. But in America things are worse: to get noticed, you have
to live not just in a marginal state, but in one that’s big enough to
have a worthwhile number of electoral college votes.

Nonetheless, the basic idea of swing applies as much as in Australia,
and we can show it graphically by means of a pendulum. This works just
like a standard Mackerras-style pendulum: the percentages indicate the
swing needed for that state to change hands, and the numbers show the
majority that would result. A uniform swing of 2% to the Republicans,
for example, would win them all the states up to and including
Minnesota, and a majority of 98 in the electoral college.

Chuck’s US Presidential election pendulum 2004

DEMOCRAT STATES
(21 states + D.C., 287 seats)
REPUBLICAN STATES
(29 states, 251 seats)

538 District of Columbia (3) 40.5% 24.1% Nebraska 3rd District (1) 538
21.7% Utah (5) 536
21.0% Wyoming (3) 526
20.8% Idaho (4) 520
17.9% Alaska (3) 512
532 Rhode Island (4) 15.6% 15.2% Nebraska at large (2) 506
524 Massachusetts (12) 14.8% 14.7% North Dakota (3) 502
13.7% Montana (3) 496
500 New York (31) 13.1% 12.1% Nebraska 1st District (1) 490
11.6% South Dakota (3) 488
11.1% Oklahoma (7) 482
11.0% Texas (34) 468
10.9% Kansas (6) 400
438 Hawaii (4) 9.8%
430 Connecticut (7) 9.3% 9.6% Nebraska 2nd District (1) 388
416 Maryland (10) 8.4% 8.6% Mississippi (6) 386
396 New Jersey (15) 8.2% 8.2% South Carolina (8) 374
8.0% Indiana (11) 358
366 Delaware (3) 6.7% 7.7% Kentucky (8) 336
360 California (55) 6.2% 7.6% Alabama (9) 320
250 Illinois (21) 6.2% 6.5% North Carolina (15) 302
208 Vermont (3) 5.4% 6.0% Georgia (15) 272
4.5% Colorado (9) 242
202 Maine 1st District (1) 4.3% 4.1% Virginia (13) 224
200 Washington (11) 2.9% 3.9% Louisiana (9) 198
178 Maine at large (2) 2.7% 3.3% Arizona (10) 180
174 Michigan (17) 2.6% 3.2% West Virginia (5) 160
140 Pennsylvania (21) 2.1% 2.8% Arkansas (6) 150
2.0% Tennessee (11) 138
1.9% Nevada (5) 116
1.8% Ohio (20) 106
98 Minnesota (10) 1.3% 1.7% Missouri (11) 66
78 Maine 2nd District (1) 1.0%
76 Oregon (7) 0.2% 0.7% New Hampshire (4) 44
62 Iowa (7) 0.2%
48 Wisconsin (10) 0.1%
28 New Mexico (5) 0.0%
18
Florida (27) 0.0%
36
© Charles Richardson 2004. All
rights reserved.

Note: All
states allocate seats in the electoral college on a winner-take-all basis,
with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which allocate one seat to the
winner in each congressional district and the remaining two seats to the
statewide winner.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to get agreement on the swing required
for victory, because the 2000 election turned on a disputed election in
Florida. I have put Florida on the Democrat side of the pendulum,
because the best evidence is that the Democrats actually won the vote
there, but its electoral college votes went to the Republicans after
the supreme court prevented a recount.

Either way, the Florida margin was vanishingly small – less than 0.1% –
and, on a uniform swing, whoever wins Florida this time will win the
presidency. The electoral arithmetic, however, is running against the
Democrats. The states that Al Gore carried last time (including
Florida) were then worth 292 electoral votes; now they are only worth
287. What has happened is the equivalent of a redistribution: the
boundaries don’t change, but the votes allocated to each state have
changed following the 2000 census.

Just as in Australia, population movement tends to be driven by
climate, so the states that voted for Bush, mostly in the south, have
been gaining population at the expense of the northern states, which
voted more for Gore. That, together with the usual advantages of
incumbency, makes this a very difficult election for John Kerry to win.

So, for example, if in 2000 the Democrats had lost Florida and
Michigan, but won Ohio, they would still have had a majority. But if
Kerry does that, he will lose, 275 to 263. And Republican gains at this
stage look more likely than losses. American politics is becoming more
about ideology and less about class, and much of what was once Democrat
heartland, notably such midwestern states as Wisconsin and Minnesota,
is now under threat.

The Democrats are becoming more the party of the educated, the secular
and the cosmopolitan, while their opponents attract the ignorant, the
nativists and the fundamentalists. This is bad news for John Kerry: as
Thoreau asked, “when were the good and the brave ever in a majority?”

Nonetheless Kerry, uninspiring as he is, could hardly be a worse
standardbearer in this respect that Al Gore was. He is as likely as
anyone to hold the rickety Democrat coalition together, and it is just
possible that, energised by the memory of the stolen 2000 election,
enough of them will turn out next week to give him a narrow victory.
But at this stage it does not look likely.

Peter Fray

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