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One candidate could win popular vote but end up the loser on electoral votes

Sunday, November 05, 2000

By Rachel Smolkin, Post-Gazette National Bureau

This year's presidential election is so close that one candidate could win the popular vote but lose the election -- something that hasn't happened in more than a century.

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush naturally hope to win the most popular votes, but the real goal is to capture states and their electoral votes. The architects of the Constitution crafted a presidential system that emphasizes the choice of the states rather than the choice of all the people acting together who live in the states.

The winner of a state takes all its electoral votes, which equal its number of members of Congress -- except in Maine and Nebraska, where the votes can be split among candidates. A presidential candidate needs 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win the White House.

This year's tight race has raised an unlikely but intriguing possibility: What if Gore narrowly prevails in states with a lot of electoral votes, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, while Bush wins the most votes nationwide thanks to large margins in the South and West? What if Gore secures the most votes nationally, but Bush ekes out a victory in the Electoral College by barely winning Ohio and Florida?

Political scientists and historians readily admit that such a test of the constitutional process would cause a hullabaloo if tested in modern times.

The Electoral College is "like the king and queen of England," said Dale Mayer, head reference archivist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. "It's been around so long, we don't know why we are keeping it, but we don't want to get rid of it. At any point, it might rise up and bite us."

Voters in each state technically cast their ballots for electors rather than presidential candidates, a compromise reached by constitutional framers apprehensive about the passions of the people. Those electors are chosen by each state's political parties. If Gore wins Pennsylvania, the 23 Democratic electors vote for him; if Bush wins, the 23 Republican electors vote for him.

The electoral and popular vote rarely have split.

The most clear-cut instance occurred in 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison of Indiana challenged then-President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. Democrats dominated the South, while Republicans had an edge in the North. States such as Ohio and New York were considered toss-ups.

"The Republicans campaigned better; they put their eggs in the basket of those swing states," said John Milton Cooper, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The Republicans played the game better." Cleveland won the popular vote 49 to 48 percent, but Harrison triumphed in the Electoral College and became president.

The case says as much about the post-Civil War era as about the electoral process. "There's less than meets the eye," Cooper said. A lot of Republicans -- many of them African American -- were kept from the polls through fraud and intimidation, or their votes went uncounted.

The election of 1876 is even murkier. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and led in electoral votes, but several states' votes came under dispute.

Congress established an electoral commission that voted along party lines to award all the disputed states to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who in return promised irate Southern Democrats he would end military occupation of the South and bring at least one Southern Democrat into his Cabinet.

"The person who gets the electoral vote wins, that's all there is to it," said George C. Edwards III, director of The Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

The presidential selection process is more complicated if no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College. In that case, the U.S. House of Representatives chooses the next president.

In 1800, after Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes, the House voted Jefferson president and Burr vice president.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson received the most popular votes and the most electoral votes. But a four-way race with John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William Crawford prevented Jackson from claiming a majority in the Electoral College, so the election fell to the House. Clay supported Adams, who became president and appointed Clay secretary of state. Jackson's followers decried this as a "corrupt bargain" and seized the White House four years later.

If the House decides an election, each state gets one vote for president, meaning tiny Delaware has the same clout as California.

"Political scientists are very worried about what would happen if we ever had to use this, particularly in a presidential race when the stakes are so high," said John Kessel, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

A strong third party candidate can increase the chances of a split electoral vote. In 1968, George Wallace carried five Southern states and 46 electoral votes, which created the possibility that neither Republican Richard Nixon nor Democrat Hubert Humphrey would claim a majority of electoral votes.

This time around, neither Ralph Nader nor Pat Buchanan is expected to win any states on Tuesday.

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