Imagine if Texas and the Bronx Mattered

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By JOHN TIERNEY
Published: October 31, 2004

Article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/31/weekinreview/31tier.html

DUBUQUE, Iowa Except for the stop at a dairy barn, where Karl Rove got in a friendly iceball fight with reporters, it was a routine day for the Bush campaign: a bus trip through Wisconsin farm country; the roads lined with voters who had already seen both presidential candidates roll past their corn fields. As usual, the president extolled the heartland virtue of self-reliance while pledging to continue subsidies for dairy farmers and ethanol producers.

At the end of the day, during a rally across the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, Mr. Rove was asked this question: Where would he have spent the day, the week before the election, if the president were chosen by popular vote instead of by the Electoral College?

Not in Dubuque, he said, and not on a bus tour through rural Wisconsin. "Candidates would be flying to New York and Los Angeles and population centers where they could reach the largest number of voters," said Mr. Rove, the president's master tactician. "You'd be putting together coalitions of the biggest cities and counties instead of coming to these communities."

That prospect didn't appeal to Mr. Rove, who praised the current system for forcing candidates to appeal to rural voters, but he's in the minority. For decades, polls have found that most Americans favor eliminating the Electoral College, and this year it is an especially popular fantasy for the forgotten voters in more than three dozen states that aren't battlegrounds.

Political scientists disagree on the wisdom of a popular-vote election; some argue that it would destabilize the country by encouraging more third-party candidates. But there is little doubt that it would force candidates to pay attention to more voters in more places. Every voter in the red and blue states would suddenly be worth just as much as a dairy farmer in Wisconsin, and that may have implications for the country's policies and political culture.

Instead of tripping over each other in Midwestern towns, candidates would discover that Manhattan is more than a quick stop for fund-raisers. Mr. Kerry would probably be explaining his urban agenda to crowds in Brooklyn and the Bronx; Mr. Bush might be holding town halls in Staten Island.

The problems of factory workers in Ohio would no longer be a staple of the evening news. Nevada's Yucca Mountain, the proposed site for a nuclear waste repository, would not be a campaign issue. Florida's hurricane victims would probably get a few billion dollars less in federal aid. Congress might be more interested in a new earthquake research initiative for California or transit aid to New York.

Mr. Kerry, less worried about offending Michigan's autoworkers than winning over environmentalists on both coasts, would probably spend more time on the stump discussing his plans for higher fuel-economy standards. In the South, now terra incognita to both campaigns, Mr. Kerry would be visiting black churches in Atlanta and college towns in Texas.

Mr. Bush would probably be making more explicit appeals to gun owners and evangelical Christians in his frequent visits to southern cities like Houston. He would be rallying the faithful in Orange County, Calif., and courting moderate Republicans outside Boston.

The Democrats, of course, would have benefited from a popular-vote election in 2000. But some polls this year show Mr. Bush doing better nationally than in some big battleground states, raising the possibility that he could win the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. Still, the Democrats might at least have a logistical advantage in campaign travel, said Doug Sosnik, a senior strategist for the Kerry campaign.

"The Democratic votes are more concentrated in big cities, whereas the Republicans would have to move around the country more to reach their voters," he said. While both candidates would do occasional symbolic tours of farm country, if only for the wholesome photo opportunities, voters in small cities and rural areas would mainly be reached through television commercials.

"The rule would be, travel to the big cities to get free media, because it's worth so much more, and then buy media in the smaller markets," Mr. Sosnik said.

While the campaigns now advertise mostly on local stations in battleground states, in a race decided by popular vote, viewers of network television would be unable to escape their commercials. "If it were a popular-vote election, it would probably be more efficient to buy national television," said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the Bush campaign.

Candidates would surely pay more attention to voting blocs that are now mostly ignored: blacks in the South, Democrats in the Plains and Rockies, Republicans in New England. The protectionist rhetoric now aimed at Midwest factory workers might be tempered to appease voters on both coasts whose jobs depend on free trade. Eastern suburbanites' concerns about the environment and gun control would matter more; so would Westerners' complaints about federal land-use policies.

But the basic campaign-commercials and slogans might not change much, said Stuart Stevens, a media consultant to the Bush campaign.

"If you look at the states in play now, it's not a bad microcosm of the country," he said. "Ohio and Florida and Pennsylvania have a good cross-section of voters. You could argue that it would be fairer to make it more of a national campaign, but maybe there's something uniquely good about forcing campaigns to concentrate in a few states and do hand-to-hand combat in small markets."

What if a popular-vote election were excruciatingly close? Some defenders of the Electoral College, like Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, warn that the Florida 2000 legal battle could be played out in 50 states. But others say the Florida debacle is a good reason to switch to a popular vote.

"The Electoral College magnifies the impact of fraud," said George C. Edwards III, the author of the new book, "Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America" and a political scientist at Texas A &M University "In 2000, you could change the outcome of the election by stealing 538 votes in Florida. But with popular voting, you'd have had to steal a thousand times that number."

Mr. Edwards acknowledges that there's little desire among Republican leaders in Congress to eliminate the Electoral College, but he says that might change on Tuesday. "If George Bush gets the most votes and John Kerry wins the Electoral College," he said, "then reform is a real possibility."


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