Imagine this: Americans wake up on Nov. 8 to the news that George W. Bush has won the most votes in the Presidential election--but Al Gore is the President-elect. Unlikely? Yes, but not implausible.
Three previous elections, the last in 1888, had such outcomes. The scenario is a reminder that Presidential contests are decided not by the people but by an anachronistic institution, the Electoral College. And it's possible that Bush could roll up huge majorities in the Lone Star State and the heart of Dixie but narrowly lose big battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. That bloc of 79 electoral votes could put Gore over the top.
The lesson: Don't just look at the latest nationwide polls. It's also important to analyze state-by-state contests that are shaping up from Florida to Alaska. And the electoral geography of Campaign 2000 is different than at any time in American history. The Northeast and the South are solid voting blocs at the Presidential level for the first time since the Civil War era, but their party loyalties have reversed since then. Yankeeland is now dominated by Democrats, while the South is Republican turf. Bush also appears to be rolling back Clinton-era Democratic gains in the Southwest and Mountain West. Here's a glimpse:
-- The Solid South. Republicans have had the upper hand in recent decades, though seven Southern states voted for Clinton at least once in '92 or '96. And while Gore was born in Tennessee, Southerners seem to view him as more akin to 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts than Arkansas' "Bubba" Clinton. At this point, Gore is ahead only in his home state.
-- The Texas Stomp. Governor Bush currently holds an incredible 70% to 23% lead in Texas, according to an American Research Group survey. And he's well ahead in every bordering state except New Mexico, which is up for grabs.
-- The Solid North. Once reliably Republican, New England is today the Democratic Party's electoral base. Bush can say goodbye to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont. And in former GOP hotbeds New Hampshire and Maine, he's a long shot.
-- The GOP's Great Basin. From the Black Hills westward and all the way across the Rockies, Gore may not get even a single electoral vote in the 13 states of the Great Plains and Mountain West. Only Colorado offers him a faint chance. Voters seem to see Bush as a New Westerner and Gore as an Old Democrat.
-- The Gold Coast. California, once an electoral lock for the GOP, is now close to a sure shot for the Democratic Party, thanks largely to the immigrant-bashing legacy of Republican ex-Governor Pete Wilson. The state's 54 electoral votes will give Gore 20% of the total he needs to capture the White House. But Oregon and Washington, though Democratic-leaning, are still in play.
-- Industrial Strength. With so much of the country looking locked up, this election will be decided in the industrial heartland. Of these states, Ohio and Indiana lean Republican, Illinois and Wisconsin lean Democratic, and the others--Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Missouri--are toss-ups. So don't be surprised to see Bush pick a Rust Belt Republican as running mate.
Where do things stand today? A Business Week analysis of the Electoral College puts Bush ahead in 26 states, with 240 electoral votes--30 short of the magic number. Gore leads in 14 states (and the District of Columbia), for a total of 186 electoral votes. Too close to call are 112 electoral votes in 10 states.
Believe it or not, that's good news for Gore: The Vice-President is still within easy striking distance of victory. But to pull it off, he's going to have to turn things around in the Pacific Northwest, Appalachia, and the industrial Midwest. Thanks to the electoral map, it's likely to be an exciting Presidential race right down to the wire.