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 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road