On the way home from work today, I heard a few minutes of the Laura Ingraham show; she's a conservative talk-show host who has replaced Dave Ramsey's financial show on my local AM station (full disclosure: I prefer Dave). She was interviewing someone on the still-far-off 2008 election, and was pointing out how likely it is that Hillary Clinton will be our next President. Although I can't say I am very happy about that, it makes good math sense. As I'm in the process of writing my final exam, and as there are a couple of questions on it about the electoral college, here's a brief synopsis for those who haven't had a civics class in a while.
Contrary to popular belief, getting the most votes won't make you President. The magic number is a majority of electoral votes. Every state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its number of senators (always 2) plus its number of congressional representatives (from 1 in sparsely-populated states like Wyoming up to 53 in California). If you win the popular vote by even a one-vote plurality in a state, you pretty much get all those electoral votes. With 100 senators and 435 congressional districts, that makes 535 total votes, plus the 23rd amendment gave Washington, DC 3 votes to equal the smallest state. So that's 538. Half of 538 is 269, and a majority is 270. So if you get 270 electoral votes, you win. Simple enough!
But there's more--in a 3-or-more-way race, you can win the electoral vote without winning half the popular vote. A plurality still counts. Further, about 40% of the population tends to vote Democrat, about 40% Republican, and the other 20% or so are generally in play. That's why our biggest popular-vote landslides are always around the magic 60% mark. So it's possible, when a party is not united (like when two Democrats faced Lincoln in 1860, or Teddy Roosevelt took votes away from Taft in 1912, or a Ross Perot steals votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992), the other guy (Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, respectively) can pick up the electoral majority while only winning around 40% of the popular vote.
It's even better than that. Four times in our history, the guy with the second-most overall popular votes has still won the electoral vote (in 1824, 1876, 1888, and most recently in 2000--and, trivia time: 3 of the 4 had a father or grandfather who had also been President--post a comment if you know who didn't). But that makes sense. The electoral college measures breadth of support across all the states instead of depth of support in just a few. If you can imagine someone winning California by a million votes, but losing each of the other 49 states by maybe 10,000 each, you can see how it's supposed to work--the winner of 49 states deserves more to be President, even though he or she "lost" the popular vote by half a million.
But why does all this mean we're looking at Bush-Clinton-Bush-CLINTON? Demographics. If you look at the map of the 2000 election county-by-county, George W. Bush painted the whole map bright red. But there were small patches of intense Al Gore blue along both coasts, up and down the Mississippi River, and in big urban areas. Yet Gore won more popular votes, and the electoral college came down to 600 votes in Florida. Urban voters, who tend to be younger, more often single, more often from minority backgrounds, socially more liberal--they break far more heavily Democrat than "red states" do Republican. And they are much more densely populated than much larger swaths of the country. So New York City dominates NY state politics. "Blue" LA, San Francisco, and other cities dominate the rest of "red" California. And so it goes across the country.
If you look at the 2004 map, it's hard to pick out any state John Kerry won that Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama) would expect to lose. And let's not forget, Kerry ran a woeful campaign against an incumbent President, long before the Iraq war began to sour like it has recently. Add to that the fact that much of the "red state" base is less-than-in-love with the GOP frontrunners. I've already alluded to the fact that I won't be happy with Giuliani. Now that the immigration bill has hit the fan, McCain is hemmoraging base voters even worse than he was before. And Romney has yet to break out of third place behind those two. If a party can't even get all of their base, they can't win the electoral college.
Of course, there's lots of time between now and then--many GOP'ers think that a Fred Thompson candidacy might change the calculus, plus provide crossover potential to pick up some of that elusive 20% in the middle. Others think that this immigration bill might upset the apple-cart. And of course, as Dewey proved in 1948, the guy who is "guaranteed" to win can still be upset (by my favorite Democrat, Harry S Truman, who saw his party split three ways and still won). But if you're among those who says, "Hillary can't possibly win," think again.