Parties Tussle Over Electoral Votes The Democrats cry foul over a GOP push in California to allot an electoral vote for each congressional district carried by a presidential candidate. But Democrats have tried to do the same thing in other states.
NPR logo Parties Tussle Over Electoral Votes

Parties Tussle Over Electoral Votes

President Bush and the Republicans expect — and hope, they say — Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. hide caption

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Idaho's Chenoweth is one of five Republicans from the Class of '94 who are no longer with us. hide caption

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Twenty-nine years ago today, Democratic primary runoffs in Alabama yielded two new senators and one new governor. But the era of Democratic domination of the state would soon come to an end. hide caption

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It's not often that an e-mail makes me shake in my boots. One reason being, of course, is that I don't wear boots. But there it was, a note Tuesday from Democratic national chair Howard Dean that gave me the shivers.

The subject: "They're already trying to steal the White House." Whoa! What's this? Then came the first line of Dean's message: "If you can't win, cheat." What are those nefarious Republicans up to now, I wondered. Anyway, I had to keep reading. I was hooked.

I learn that Republican operatives — "including some of the 2004 Swift Boaters" — are planning to put on the June California ballot a measure that would end the state's practice of awarding all the electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate carried the state. That's the way it's done in 47 other states (all but Maine and Nebraska). For the past four election cycles, the Democratic candidate carried California, winning its goldmine of electoral votes, and presumably he/she would do so again in 2008. But not so fast. What this ballot measure would do is allot an electoral vote for each congressional district carried by the candidate. Had this been in effect in 2004, President Bush would have received 22 of California's electoral votes, instead of zero. And a close presidential election would no longer have been close.

This is not electoral reform, Dean insists. It's "a blatant power grab." Other Democrats and their allies had the same reaction. A "Tom DeLay/Karl Rove-type maneuver," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). A "canard wrapped up in a charade," added Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. It's a "devious" and "poisonous" proposal that has the potential to "become a constitutional crisis," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. It's done by the same "folks who gave us the Willie Horton ads, the Swift boat campaign, the purges of black voters in Florida and endless other dirty electoral tricks."

Pretty strong stuff. Democrats are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat the measure, should it get enough signatures to make it onto the June primary ballot. As they should. It would be one thing if every state apportioned electoral votes this way. When it's just California, then one side is at a complete disadvantage.

If only it were this simple.

Earlier this year, as the California scheme was being hatched, Democrats in North Carolina were planning on doing the same exact thing. The Tar Heel State is as reliably Republican in presidential races as California is Democratic; in the last 10 elections, it has voted for only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter in 1976. To counter that, the Democratic-controlled state Senate passed a bill that would allocate the state's electoral votes by congressional district. The Republican candidate would presumably continue to carry the state, but this way the Democratic candidate could get some electoral votes as well.

Democrats made the same argument with the same straight face as Republicans were making in California: that this had nothing to do with helping their party, that it's just to make their state more competitive and lure presidential candidates from both parties to campaign there. Yeah, right.

Was this an example of Democrats "stealing" the White House? Was this a "devious" plan that would lead to a "constitutional crisis?" Well, if it was, I didn't hear any Democrats express that view. Democrats, in fact, pushed it through the state Senate, and were anticipating a similar victory in the House ... until, apparently, they got a below-the-radar call from Howard Dean requesting that they put off final action on the bill for this year. After all, you can't send out inflammatory e-mails about GOP chicanery in California if your allies are doing the same thing in North Carolina.

Similarly, let's take a trip all the way back to 2004, in Colorado, when Democratic consultant Rick Ridder and state Sen. Ron Tupa (D) led the "Make Your Vote Count" campaign: Amendment 36 would have divided Colorado's electoral votes — in the GOP column all but twice in the past half-century — by congressional district. Without question, it would have given John Kerry an opportunity to pick up an electoral vote or two in a state that was heading for George W. Bush. Without question, that was the intent of the ballot measure. Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

The problem with what they are trying to do in California is the same problem that was attempted in North Carolina and Colorado. You can't (and shouldn't) pick and choose which state to push this kind of change based on its politics. It should be everywhere or nowhere. But if it's wrong for Republicans to implement this in California — a move that could very well keep the White House in GOP hands — then it's wrong when the Democrats try it as well in other states. That's why hysterical e-mails and op-eds fail to move me. Even if I wore boots.

And, class, that is the end of today's lecture. Any questions?

Q: What do you make of President Bush saying that he thinks Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee in 2008? Did he say that because he truly believes it, or because he wants it to happen because he feels she would be the easiest Democrat to defeat? — Joanne Bowen, New York, N.Y.

A: Perhaps a little of both. Real voters, of course, will begin to have their say in a few months, but right now Clinton seems on her way to the nomination. Despite misgivings of some about her early anti-war credentials, she seems to be extending her lead over her nearest rivals. The flap over Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu seemed to come and go, with no lasting ill effects. And the recent unveiling of her health-care plan was widely seen as an opportunity to shake loose from her failures of 1993-94. A new CNN poll in New Hampshire, where the Democrats are debating tonight, shows her with a 23-point lead over Barack Obama.

But her negatives remain high, and there is no shortage of Democrats who fear — and Republicans who hope — that she is too polarizing a figure to triumph in the end.

Q: I'm planning on writing a book about the Republican "Class of '94," those Republicans who were swept into office in the Gingrich Revolution. Can you tell me who from that class is no longer alive? — D.M., Arlington, Va.

A: Seventy-three new Republicans were elected to the House in 1994, the first time the GOP won a majority in the House since 1952. While many have retired, moved on to statewide office or been defeated since then, five are no longer alive. They are:

• Sonny Bono (R-CA), who died in a skiing accident on Jan. 5, 1998;

• Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), who retired in 2000 and died in an automobile accident on Oct. 2, 2006;

• Frank Cremeans (R-OH), who was defeated in 1996 after one term and died on Jan. 2, 2003;

• Jack Metcalf (R-WA), who retired in 2000 and died on March 15, 2007; and

• Charlie Norwood (R-GA), who died of cancer on Feb. 13, 2007.

Q: I've been working through Robert Caro's series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. I read Master of the Senate first, then went back to the beginning and read Path to Power. Regarding your column of last week, you should have put a spoiler alert about what happened with Walter Jenkins! I have to tell you, when you gave away the end of the Jenkins saga, you may as well have tasered me in the gut. — Nathan Taylor, Washington, D.C.

A: Ah, you youngsters. I never realized there were those who didn't know this story. (Spoiler alert: Johnson defeated Goldwater in the '64 election.)

A footnote on Jenkins: In last week's column, I mentioned that the scandal didn't last long in the public mind and hardly affected the LBJ landslide. Bob Fratkin of Washington, D.C., writes that "just as Jenkins was getting serious headlines, the Chinese exploded a nuclear bomb for the first time, and that pushed him off the front pages. Still, it didn't stop the panoply of Jenkins jokes."

DEMOCRATS AND THE WAR: Lots of e-mails arrived in response to last week's column, which talked about the debate in Democratic circles about which candidate is "purest" on the war in Iraq. (This was prompted by a puzzling article in The Washington Post that questioned Barack Obama's anti-war credentials.)

Kevin Zeese, the director of VotersforPeace.US, writes, "Yes, the Democrats all say they are against the war, but that is not the key part of the story. Obama, whom you focus on, has put forward a plan that is very similar to the Bush-Petraeus plan. He will withdraw two brigades a month instead of one, and will only withdraw combat troops (half the troops) and with combat troops he would leave thousands for anti-al-Qaeda efforts, training of Iraqis and protection of U.S. interests. That is not an end to the Iraq occupation. That is not the record of a peace candidate."

The always astute Lou Cannon writes from California, "I don't think you have to go back to the Vietnam War to explain why Clinton, Edwards, et al, voted for the Iraq war resolution. The mystery of why they did it is hidden in plain sight. It goes back to the 1991 Senate vote on the Gulf War resolution, which a majority of Democrats in the Senate (with John Kerry playing a prominent role) opposed. This was the wrong vote and politically tone-deaf. Senate Democrats in 2002 didn't want to repeat the mistake."

And Michael Brownholtz of Willow Grove, Pa., adds, "I think the reason for the original support of the war was that, as a country, we were still in shock over what happened on 9/11. Because of that shock, we just placed our trust blindly in George W. Bush, with the feeling that he would take care of things. Now we are immersed in a war that we can't extract ourselves from. But I am most surprised at how the media have handled the war. They didn't ask the tough questions about the strategy, intelligence or anything. It was a completely different ballgame with the press and Vietnam."

Lastly, we got the obligatory ton of e-mails asking why Ron Paul wasn't included in the story. Yes, the Texas Republican congressman opposes the war, and in fact was one of only six Republicans in the House who voted against the war in 2002. But the piece was about Democrats and the war.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM: Last week's column, which listed all the U.S. attorneys general who ran for office in the past half-century or so, specifically mentioned Alberto Gonzales as one who never was a candidate. Wrong, points out Thomas Phillips of Bastrop, Texas: "He won a spirited race for the Republican nomination to keep his seat on the Texas Supreme Court in 2000, defeating Rod Gorman. He then won the general election, defeating Libertarian Lance Smith; there was no Democratic candidate. Gonzales then became the first Texan in modern history to 'decline election' to statewide office when he became President Bush's White House counsel."

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: Reading this column is bad enough; you can also hear a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, usually at 2:40 p.m. ET (sometimes, if warranted, we start at 2 p.m.; you never know in this wacky business). If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here.

FAN MAIL: Ari Rosenberg of Cincinnati, Ohio, writes, "As a rabbinical student, I have to say that I listen to your podcast 'religiously.' I love your fresh perspective and your fantastic sense of humor. I listen to the podcast as soon as I get it and I can often be found laughing out loud at your witty quips."

And then there was this suggestion from the "other listener," according to a missive we received from Andy Finley of Spring Hill, Tenn. "Back in June, your production of the podcast featured a short blooper reel at the end of the program each week. It was absolutely hilarious, and I think you and Ron should bring it back."

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: A busy Democratic primary runoff day in Alabama to fill two Senate seats and the governorship. For the seat of retiring Sen. John Sparkman (D): ex-state Supreme Court Judge Howell Heflin defeats Rep. Walter Flowers. For the seat of Sen. Jim Allen (D), who died in June: state Sen. Donald Stewart defeats Maryon Allen, who succeeded her late husband via appointment. For the seat of Gov. George Wallace (D), who is term-limited: millionaire Fob James defeats state Attorney General Bill Baxley (Sept. 26, 1978). All three Democratic nominees will easily prevail in November.

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