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Bill Straub: Only one three-digit number matters when all is said and done, 270 Electoral College votes


It’s time, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, to delve into the fascinating world of numbers, one digit in particular – 270.

That, of course, represents the number of electoral votes that either President Donald J. Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom, the Republican, or former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat, will have to obtain on Nov. 3, or shortly thereafter, to become, or in Trump’s case, remain, the leader of the free world.

There are so many variations involved with this seemingly simple number that it will take someone with the brilliance of Sir Isaac Newton to figure it all out. But there are dozens of take-aways to be derived from this momentous occasion.

One can be quickly addressed – Biden will almost certainly win the popular vote, perhaps by a sizeable margin. In 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, outpolled Trump nationwide by about 2.9 million votes, bettering the man who would be president by about two percent of the total vote.


The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

So don’t be surprised if Biden wins by four points or better and out-polls Trump by five or six million votes. It doesn’t matter. Winning the popular vote, stealing a quote from Huckleberry Finn, ain’t worth shucks. It’s like winning the Miss Congeniality prize at the old Miss America contest.

Under the odd American political system majoritarianism is jettisoned by the Electoral College, where each state is afforded delegates based on the number of that state’s House and Senate congressional delegation. So California, with 52 House Members and two senators, gets 54 electoral votes and Wyoming, with a single House member and two senators, gets three.

Now consider, California, with about 39.7 million residents, is 69 times bigger than Wyoming, with 572,381 folks. Yet the number of Golden State electoral votes is only 18 times larger than that state with a lot of cowboys.

In other words, small states receive a significant edge in the Electoral College. And right now that runs to the advantage of the Republicans, who maintain a majority in more of the 50 states than Democrats, even though more people nationwide align with Democrats.

Eight states generally considered GOP – Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas – total 10,552,254 residents, meaning the population of California is about 3.7 times larger. Yet, the eight states have 30 electoral votes, meaning California’s has only 1.8 times their total.

Frankly, the desire to assure that large states don’t roll over the smaller states is a good one. But, as they used to say in basketball, good look, bad execution. There are ways to do it without creating a Looney Tunes system.

In two of the most recent five presidential elections, the candidate receiving the most votes lost in the Electoral College – Democrat Al Gore outpolled Republican George W. Bush by 543,895 in 2000 but Bush went on to the presidency thanks to the Electoral College (and, no, we’re not going to get into the Florida shenanigans here). Then, of course, there was the Trump-Clinton contest.

The only time in the past 28 years that a Republican outpaced a Democrat was in 2004 when Bush, seeking re-election, beat Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, by three million votes. Since 2000, the Republican presidential candidate has attracted a majority once. Yet the party has controlled power in the White House for 12 of those 20 years.

All of that is going around Robin Hood’s barn to say a) the system needs to be reformed and b) it’s hard to figure out who’s going to win the guldern thing this year. Biden will win the popular vote but Trump has the advantage in the Electoral College.

Let’s start from ground zero. Four years ago, Trump defeated Clinton in the Electoral College 304-227. That means, assuming Biden retains all of the states Clinton won in 2016 – and odds are he will, with only Nevada, Minnesota and New Hampshire possible but unlikely defectors – he has to pick up 43 electoral votes to reach the magic number of 270.

There are ample opportunities but sure things are in short supply. Polls show Biden ahead in Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes, by 6.4 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average with over 50 percent of the vote, and Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, by 8.6 percent, again with over 50 percent of those surveyed.

That would account for 26 electoral votes, leaving Biden 17 short.

Here is where it gets tricky.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, would fit in nicely. But the RCP average has Biden up tenuously with less than 50 percent of the vote and an advantage of a thin 3.8 percent. Pennsylvania is always extremely unpredictable. Remember the sage analysis of political savant James Carville – Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh on one end, Philadelphia on the other end and Alabama in the middle.

Biden was born in Pennsylvania, Scranton to be precise, for you fans of The Office out there, and that might account for something. But it’s also an oil and coal state, two energy economies that have hit on extremely hard times that Biden has indicated he eventually wants to see go the way of all flesh.

And there’s history. The RCP average as late as Nov. 2, 2016 – the election was on Nov. 5 – had Clinton leading Trump by 5.1 points in the Keystone Trump won by more than 56,000 votes out of almost six million cast. Now Biden doesn’t have anything like “her emails!!!’’ to contend with but it is all too close for Democratic comfort.

The next logical hope would then be Florida with a whopping 29 electoral votes. Biden was leading in the Sunshine State as recently as Oct. 26 according to RCP but Trump appears to have taken a very slight lead – less than a full percentage point, making it, essentially, a dead heat.

This is a little odd even though Trump won there by almost 113,000 votes four years ago. Senior citizens, and you may have heard Florida has more than its share, were reported to be flocking to Biden. And some polls show a weakening of the Latino vote for Democrats. Cuban-Americans have consistently leaned Republican for years but others, like Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, who are plentiful, have generally been Democratic voters. It’s especially curious since Trump has gone out of his way to describe Latinos coming across the southern border as rapists and criminals.

Things get difficult if both Pennsylvania and Florida elude Biden’s grasp. A combination of Arizona – with 11 electoral votes – and North Carolina – with 15 – would do the trick. The RCP average has Biden up by 2.4 percent in the Grand Canyon State but Arizonans have voted for a Democrat for president only once since 1948 – Bill Clinton in 1996, mainly because Ross Perot was on the ballot to drain votes from the Republican incumbent, President George H.W. Bush.

The polls show Biden up by less than one percent in North Carolina, so that’s not exactly a confidence builder either.

There are other possibilities – Georgia is a tie, according to RCP, Texas, of all places, is showing a slim Trump advantage. Iowa may prove available – Biden holds a 1.4 percent advantage but it offers only six electoral votes.

Yet, combining Iowa with Arizona, thus totaling 17 electoral votes, while picking up Wisconsin, Michigan and all of the states Clinton won in 2016 and you come up with – you guessed it – 270 electoral votes.

Voila.

Still, a look at the Electoral College makes it look like Biden is trying to push a camel through the eye of a needle. Democrats may have to rely on a commodity they have found in short supply in recent times – luck.

It can be done but it’s liable to be a wild ride – a journey comparable to sitting next to Popeye Doyle as he careens beneath the El tracks in The French Connection.


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