Campaign '08: Is a Dead Heat Even Possible? 

Charlie Cook, the well-known political seer for National Journal, was in town this week, and we were lucky enough not only to touch him for the use of one of his illuminating analyses (see Viewpoint, p. 15) but to hear his fresh take on the 2008 presidential election, as presented to the Memphis Rotary Club on Tuesday.

Cook confirmed something which we had begun to suspect, that -- political trends or no political trends -- the contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain is going to be a real barn-burner, too close for anybody to hazard a definitive prediction on at this stage. What makes it so is the peculiar mathematics of the electoral college, which -- now as in the foundation days of the republic -- ensures that the candidate who ekes out a narrow victory in a large state will get the whole kit and caboodle of electors from that state, while the blowout winner of a marginally less populous state will get a lesser number, even though his overall popular-vote total might have him well ahead otherwise.

In our time, one of the consequences of this anomaly was Bush over Gore in 2000, in what may have been the most crucial election outcome of the last hundred years. But we need not rush too fast from that fact into the declaration that the electoral-college system must be changed at all costs (something that would require nothing less than constitutional revision -- perhaps an easier business in the Internet Age but still one involving a long and drawn-out process of congressional action, followed by state-by-state approval). It is largely forgotten now, but there was a general assumption just prior to the election of November 2000 that it was Gore, not Bush, who might lose the popular vote but win the presidency on the basis of an electoral-vote edge.

In any case, what we have is what we have. And, for various reasons too lengthy and involved to go into here, the prevailing national mood favoring Democrats won't necessarily be reflected in the presidential-race outcome. Consider this finding by Cook: If Obama should win all the states won by both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 (and these were narrow losers, remember) plus all the states won by either Gore or Kerry but not both (New Hampshire, Iowa, and New Mexico) plus Nevada, which was won by neither, the resultant electoral vote standing would be Obama 269, McCain 269.

Other states are in play this year -- Virginia, for example, which has morphed from a Southern state into a mid-Atlantic one, in Cook's thinking. But the likelihood, in any case, is that partisan loyalties will be in flux nationally and that the kind of regional shifts in thinking favored by electoral-college math will be decisive in determining a winner. This is the roulette-wheel reality that some analysts (though not Cook) choose to call "post-partisan."

If indeed we have entered some such unpredictable era of politics, then post-partisan may feel a bit too much like post-partum. We'll be happy to see the new birth, we suppose, but the experience may end up having been more uncomfortable and painful than we'd prefer.

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