College sets stiff test for failing Bush: John Lichfield in Washington on the hidden battleground in the closest US election since 1976

THE WORLD'S oldest think-tank, the Brookings Institution, ran a model of the American presidential election through a computer last week. The program was first tried four years ago, when Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead in the opinion polls. The computer stubbornly predicted a handsome victory for George Bush at between 52 and 53 per cent of the popular vote. Come November, Mr Bush won with 52.7 per cent.

The equivalent information for this year's campaign was fed into the Brookings model over the last few days - second-quarter economic figures, candidates' poll ratings and a complex set of variables based on the 'ennui' factor - how long a party has continuously occupied the White House. The computer forecast that Bill Clinton would win with 51 per cent of the nationwide vote.

Whatever one thinks of computer models - another forecasts a narrow victory for Mr Bush - the Brookings figures echo the consensus view of thinkers, pundits and strategists in both parties. This will be the closest election since Jimmy Carter's narrow win in 1976.

The closer the election, the more the geographical politics of America - and the distorting effect of that mysterious entity, the electoral college - will come into play. Even with Mr Clinton 20 to 30 points ahead in the polls and the Bush campaign floundering, geographical politics is one reason why the more cool-headed Republicans are not panicking - at any rate, not yet.

The electoral college is the phantom second stage of the US presidential election. In each state a candidate wins, even by a handful of votes, he scoops all the votes in the electoral college: 54 this year for the largest state, California, three for the smallest in population, such as Wyoming and Alaska. The candidate who wins enough states to assemble a simple majority of votes in the electoral college - 270 is the magic number - occupies the White House.

In the 1970s and 1980s, apart from the Carter victory, Republicans achieved a crushing regional domination in presidential politics. To their traditional bastions in the mountains and plains they added the whole of the former Democrat empire in the South. Republicans entering a presidential race in the past two decades could take huge swathes of the country almost for granted. The Democrats, by contrast, had practically no states in which they were assured of victory, save Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Over the last five elections, 'bedrock' Republican states, where an average of at least 55 per cent of voters have supported the party, have been worth 205 of the 270 votes needed for a majority. The 'bedrock' Democratic vote has been worth three votes.

While Ross Perot was in this year's race, splitting the moderate-to-conservative vote, this stranglehold - the so-called 'Republican Lock' - was broken. With Mr Perot out, Mr Bush begins the 1992 race - psychologically and tactically - on the third lap of a four-lap race.

Any candidate who wins the nationwide vote, even with just over 50 per cent, is almost certain to win enough states, large and small, to put together an electoral college majority. But because regional differences still exist and the US consists not of states but of 'media markets', Republicans start with an invaluable tactical and pyschological advantage.

In 1988 the Democrats had to concentrate their resources in a group of large swing states: California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. To have any serious chance of winning, Mr Dukakis had to win all of them. The Republicans could shovel resources into the same states, knowing that they need only win a couple of them to deny the Democrats victory.

One Republican strategist said: 'It is like a game of chess in which one player, though having roughly the same pieces, is pinned in a corner of the board and his opponent has all the choice of moves.'

This year, the Democrats hope that Mr Clinton, their first Southern nominee since Mr Carter, will be able to break the blockade and broaden out the board a little. With Mr Perot out of the game, Mr Clinton's hopes of a big breakthrough in the South, such as winning Texas or Florida, are dimmed. But the Democrat candidate and his running-mate, Al Gore, should be able to hold their home states of Arkansas and Tennessee. And party strategists say their polling shows that a South- South Democratic ticket makes a clutch of other Southern states - Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, possibly North Carolina - at least marginal enough to throw the Republicans off balance.

California looks pretty safe for Mr Clinton. Demographic changes and a young, moderate Democratic ticket make Colorado and maybe New Mexico winnable for the first time in more than 40 years. As always, the fiercest battleground will be the industrial Midwest - Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. But, unlike in past years, Mr Clinton can threaten to assemble an electoral college majority without having to win all three states.

----------------------------------------------------------------- TOP TEN STATES BY ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTES ----------------------------------------------------------------- Of the 538 total votes:- State No of votes 1 California 54 2 New York 33 3 Texas 32 4 Florida 25 5 Pennsylvania 23 6 Illinois 22 7 Ohio 18 8 Michigan 18 9 New Jersey 15 10 North Carolina 14 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little