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How state could again be a player in presidential elections

By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee, December 14, 2004

President Bush and John Kerry both devoted some valuable campaign time this year to central Maine because one of the state's four electoral votes was, it was believed, potentially up for grabs - and at the time, their duel was so close that that one electoral vote might have made the difference. Maine is one of two states - heavily Republican Nebraska being the other - that do not award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Both give two of their votes, the two attributable to their U.S. Senate seats, to the statewide winner but apportion the remainder by whoever wins each congressional district.

Despite having the system, neither state has ever divided its electoral votes, and 2004 was no exception. Kerry claimed Maine's four votes and Nebraska contributed its five to Bush's re-election . As both campaigns carefully monitored sentiment in Maine's 2nd Congressional District, they both ignored California, whose 55 electoral votes are the largest trove in the nation (Texas' 32 are second) and a fifth of those needed to win the White House.

Everyone knew going into the campaign that Kerry would win California handily and thus both campaigns concentrated on the few states - and in Maine's case, one congressional district - where the outcome was in question.

Those expectations about California were underscored again Monday, when the final election results were released and the state's 55 Kerry electors met briefly in the Capitol to cast their futile votes for the Democratic challenger. Kerry polled 6.8 million California votes, 54.4 percent of the total, while Bush garnered 5.5 million or 44.4 percent. Kerry's 1.3 million vote margin was almost exactly what Al Gore rang up in 2000 against Bush.

Should Californians feel slighted that voters in one congressional district in Maine got more attention than those in the nation's largest state? Logically, we should, but no more so than residents of other states whose outcomes were preordained. And, in fact, we're doubly ignored since by common consent in national political circles, California's presidential primary is also a nonplayer. When it comes to presidential politics, at least in recent years, the state is almost exclusively a source of campaign financing.

Are Californians doomed to irrelevance in the duels for the White House every four years? Not necessarily. The state has favored Democrats in the last four presidential contests, but before that, the state had voted Republican in every election save two (1948 and 1964) since World War II. It could become a presidential player again if it undergoes another cyclic evolution of partisan orientation.

Democrats haven't been winning by landslide margins in California and, in fact, Bush won substantially more California counties than Kerry did this year. A more centrist Republican candidate, such as John McCain or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, would put California back into play.

Doing away with the electoral vote system and electing presidents by popular vote would, of course, make California voters as relevant of those in other states. And so would the halfway step of awarding electoral votes by congressional district, as Maine and Nebraska do, with two going to the statewide winner. Colorado voters, incidentally, rejected a congressional system this year and thus sidestepped potential effects on this year's contest.

Were a congressional district system in effect this year in California, Bush would have won at least 20, and perhaps one or two more, of the state's 55 electoral votes (final results broken down by congressional district have not yet been calculated). Republicans hold 20 of the 53 congressional seats and Bush's popular vote translates into 23 electoral votes - roughly the equivalent of a Florida or a Pennsylvania.

A couple of Republican state legislators have introduced legislation to shift California to the congressional system, but it will be buried by Democratic legislators eager to protect their party's presidential advantage in the state. But were California to become a battleground state again, Democrats might wish that they had such a system. They might recall that Michael Dukakis lost California by just 300,000 votes to Bush's father in 1988, but the elder Bush claimed all 47 of the state's electoral votes that year.


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Last modified: December 10, 2004

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