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Jewish World Review April 10, 2002 / 29 Nisan, 5762

George Will

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Winner-Take-Some | In presidential politics, Republicans have a California problem. They might be able to enact, by popular initiative, a partial solution, one with broad, and arguably salutary, consequences on presidential campaigning elsewhere.

Republican presidential candidates have lost California in the last three elections by an average of 12.7 points. Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate have lost five consecutive elections. The governor is a Democrat, and Democrats have large majorities in both houses of the Legislature. In 2004 California will have 55 electoral votes, slightly more than one-fifth of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

The Republicans' partial solution to their problem in presidential politics would be for California to allocate its electoral votes as Maine and Nebraska do.

All states have a total of electoral votes equal to their numbers of U.S. senators and congressional districts. The allocation of states' electoral votes on a statewide winner-take-all basis is not required by the Constitution. It is the choice of 48 states. However, Maine (since 1969) and Nebraska (since 1991) allocate the two electoral votes they have for their senators to the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes statewide, but allocate the other electoral votes to whichever candidate carries each congressional district.

Since 1969 Maine's two districts have voted alike, and since 1991 Nebraska's three have also. But suppose California, with 53 districts, adopted the Maine-Nebraska plan.

In 2000 Bush carried 19 of California's then 52 congressional districts. If in 2000 California had allocated electoral votes as Maine and Nebraska do, Gore would have received 33 for the congressional districts he carried, plus two for winning the statewide popular vote. Bush, having received 19 votes for his California congressional district wins, would have won the national electoral vote 290-248.

Even without California's adopting the Maine-Nebraska policy, the 2004 electoral vote landscape will be more hospitable to Bush than it was in 2000. Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics, notes that if the electoral vote distribution now set for 2004 had been in place in 2000, Bush would have won not 271 electoral votes but 278. This is because he carried seven of the eight states that have gained electoral votes: Arizona (2), Colorado (1), Florida (2), Georgia (2), Nevada (1), North Carolina (1) and Texas (2) -- all except California (1).

But California Republicans have reasons beyond presidential politics to favor their state's adopting the Maine-Nebraska policy. They believe that one reason their 1992 Senate candidate, Bruce Herschensohn, narrowly lost was that in early autumn President George H. W. Bush wrote off California. His decision not to campaign there depressed Republican voting all the way down the state ballot.

In 2000 the Bush campaign improvidently promised that money raised in California would be spent there. That promise, and wishful thinking by some of the amateurs who represent California's establishment Republicans, nearly cost Bush the presidency. Imagine that the time and money spent there had been spent in Florida and four states he narrowly lost (Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oregon, lost by a total of 16,983 votes).

Were California, with one-eighth of the nation's electorate, to adopt the Maine-Nebraska policy, other states might follow suit. This might scramble strategies, and the allocation of campaigns' resources (the candidates' time, and money). Candidates might target one or more districts in states they would otherwise ignore. An ancillary result might be an increased number of competitive House races. This year there may be only about 30 out of 435.

California's Democratic leaders probably would oppose adopting the Maine-Nebraska plan, but voters might enact it, particularly if the initiative linked it with other broadly popular reforms (e.g., easier voting for military personnel). However, there are two reasons why some California Republicans oppose adopting the Maine-Nebraska plan.

First, with Bush riding the crest of a remarkably durable tsunami of approval, some serious Republicans -- professionals, not the amateurs -- think he can carry California, which need never be considered a solidly Democratic state. Second, under the Maine-Nebraska plan, neither party's candidate might have much incentive to campaign in California. Why? After the 2000 census, congressional districts were redrawn primarily to protect both parties' incumbents. Any Republican presidential nominee is apt to carry the 20 districts with Republican representatives, and no Democratic nominee is likely to lose any of his party's 33 districts.

However, partisan calculations are irrelevant to the main reason for caution about spreading the Maine-Nebraska approach. That reason is federalism. It is reinforced when the nation's highest office is awarded by emphatic, meaning unfragmented, allocations of states' electoral votes.

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