Swing states hogging the election spotlight

Swing states hogging the election spotlight

September 12th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE -- With the presidential election less than 60 days away, Democratic President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney are racing down a well-trod path targeting swing states.

These days, that amounts to zeroing in on Ohio, Florida, Virginia and maybe as many as nine other closely contested states with candidates tailoring pledges to a narrow band of undecided voters to capture a state's coveted electoral votes.

Meanwhile, critics contend, candidate largely ignore many states like Tennessee and Georgia where the outcome is fairly set. Ignored, that is, except for occasional campaign fundraising forays to fuel the efforts in swing states.

You can count former Democratic Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, among the critics.

Both say the situation should end in which campaigns are forced to follow Electoral College strategies where the outcome trumps the national popular vote.

In his 2000 presidential bid, Gore won the popular vote but ultimately lost to Republican George W. Bush in the Electoral College. He became the third candidate in U.S. history to lose that way.

During last month's coverage of the Republican National Convention on Current TV, a network Gore co-founded, the former vice president from Tennessee said he initially continued to support the Electoral College after his loss but has since changed his mind.

"The logic is, it [Electoral College] knits the country together, it prevents regional conflicts and it goes back through our history to some legitimate concerns," Gore told viewers.

"But," Gore said, "since then I've given a lot of thought to it, and I've seen how these states are just written off and ignored, and people are effectively disenfranchised in the presidential race, and I really do now think that it's time to change that."

Last year, Republican Thompson, who unsuccessfully ran for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, endorsed the National Popular Vote project at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

"I think we're perpetually kind of rolling the dice and risking electing someone who didn't get the most votes," Thompson said at the time.

Efforts on Tuesday to contact Thompson, whose mother recently passed away, were unsuccessful.

But defenders of the Electoral College say no changes are needed. They argue mega-states like California and New York would dominate the popular vote and leave states like Tennessee an afterthought.

"The presidential election would basically be concentrated in the coastal cities, Los Angeles and New York," Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said. "And everyone else would be left behind. It would open it up more to fraud and electoral abuse."

As for Gore's remarks, Devaney said, "if Al Gore would have campaigned in his home state and not taken it for granted, he would have been president."

Gore lost Tennessee and its 11 electoral votes.

Devaney sat on the GOP's platform committee at last month's Republican National Convention where a plank pledging support for the Electoral College as is was approved and adopted by the convention.

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican state Senate speaker, likewise voiced support for the current system.

"We have a long-standing, time-tested mechanism for choosing our president," Ramsey said. "This process in rooted in a tradition that protects the interests of both small as well as large states. A National Popular Vote process that would either abolish or neuter the electoral college would eviscerate that delicate balance our founders strove to achieve."

In 2007 and 2011, bills were introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly to change the electoral vote system in Tennessee. Currently, Tennessee is one of 48 states with winner-take-all provisions governing the selection of electors. Efforts to change the law went nowhere.

The two-tiered system of electing presidents, set out in the U.S. Constitution, apportions electoral votes to states according to congressional and Senate representation. States and the District of Columbia set rules for selecting electors -- there's a total of 538 electors nationwide -- and those electors then cast ballots for president.

The magic number to win is 270.

Patrick Rosenstiel with the National Popular Vote project, the bipartisan group backing changes, said he is "confident" supports will ultimately win their national effort, although it may take a while.

"Two-thirds of the American voters are being ignored" by presidential candidates in any given election year, Rosenstiel said. "Any reform of this nature takes a little time."

In presidential election after presidential election, swing states like Ohio get "all attention, all the promises, all the campaign money. ... They're already more powerful than the state of Tennessee," which has reliably voted Republican since 1996, he said.

Presidential candidates seeking electoral votes in swing states have pushed initiatives like steel tariffs, the Medicare drug program and the No Child Left Behind education program in an effort to appeal to voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, Rosenstiel argued.

The group says smaller states are placed at more of a disadvantage under current winner-take-all rules used by most states.

The National Popular Vote's solution has been described as an "end run" around the Electoral College. It wouldn't change the U.S. Constitution or abolish the Electoral College.

But electors in states that adopt it would have to cast their votes in line with the national popular vote. Rosenstiel said it would take states with a collective 270 electoral votes to pass laws joining a state compact to go into effect.

So far, nine states with 132 electoral votes have adopted it, the group says. That is 49 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, agreed that many states, including Georgia and Tennessee, "sure don't get a lot of attention" these days. Georgia hasn't been in play for Democrats in a presidential race since 1992 when Democrat Bill Clinton won by about 13,000 votes, he said.

"We've had this system with us for a couple of hundred years," Bullock said of the Electoral College. "I wouldn't be betting on changing it any time soon."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.