San Diego Union Tribune

September 27, 2004

A-list states are bit players in 2004 drama


Jennifer Douglas, a media consultant from Solana Beach, has been camped out in Arizona since late August.

It wasn't the picturesque desert and mountain landscape that attracted her. It was John Kerry.

With polls showing the Massachusetts senator with a wide lead over President Bush in California, Douglas is part of a political migration to swing states. The volunteers make campaign signs, distribute literature and register voters.

"I think people are starting to get the message to make a difference they really need to go to a swing state," Douglas said.

Organizers from San Diego County estimate that they've registered 1,300 voters during weekend trips to the Yuma, Ariz., area.

The campaign has been focused on a handful of states, and recent analyses indicate that the election will come down to about 10 states with roughly 20 percent of the nation's population.

That has left a huge swath of America including vote-rich California, New York and Illinois off the campaign chess board and millions of voters feeling like they are playing a bit part in the political drama. It has also renewed discussion of electing the president by popular vote rather than the Electoral College.

Kerry's Illinois campaign director, Avis LaVelle, presides over an office in downtown Chicago that didn't even open until after the Democratic National Convention and hasn't gotten many resources from the national Kerry campaign.

"It's a much more grass-roots campaign than we traditionally have here when we're in play," she said, noting that money has had to be raised locally for yard signs and other paraphernalia.

It's a much different story a short drive up Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, where Bush and Kerry, their running mates and other surrogates drop in frequently and the airwaves are flooded with campaign ads.

Illinois political activists and voters who want to play a bigger role in the presidential election have been journeying to Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa.

In New York, activists have set up phone banks to call voters in swing states on behalf of Kerry, using free weekend minutes on their cell phones and call lists provided by pro-Kerry groups such as America Coming Together.

"People in New York City are dying for something productive to do in the election," said organizer John Raskin. "It's kind of a straightforward, simple way to get involved in other states that are in play."

Presidential election results in Illinois, California and New York have not been close since the 1980s. Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the three states by double-digits in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

On the Republican side, there appear to be far fewer efforts to import grass-roots volunteers into battleground states. Some hope the Democrats' strategy will backfire.

"We've been putting a lot of time and money into positioning ourselves to win," said Gerald Parsky, the chairman of Bush's California campaign. "We are not a battleground state. It's an uphill battle. But we believe we'll be in a position to be competitive to win. If the Democrats want to take California for granted, that's OK."

"There's no lack of enthusiasm here for the president," said Bob Kjellander, a Republican National Committee member from Illinois and Bush's Great Lakes region campaign chairman. "Illinois Republican efforts are being directed at Illinois. Our whole idea has been to build the infrastructure so that if the numbers do move (in Bush's favor), we'll be ready to go."

The focus on the battleground states, which has become more pronounced in the past two presidential campaigns, has ignited a debate among political experts over the way the elections are decided.

"It's one of several distorting effects of the Electoral College," said Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Vanishing Voter," which examines the reasons for low voter turnout in the United States.

Under the Electoral College, each state has a number of votes for president equal to the size of its congressional delegation. In all but two states, the candidate who wins the state's popular vote gets all of its electoral votes. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

"As long as the Electoral College decides the election rather than the popular vote, it makes sense investing your money in places that are going to make a difference," said Joel Rivlin, deputy director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which tracks campaign advertising. "You don't win brownie points if you win California by 60 percent instead of 55 percent."

Some analysts are concerned that the focus on battleground states depresses turnout elsewhere.

"This is a very emotional election, and my guess is people will turn out in higher numbers than in 2000," said Curtis Gans, who heads the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "But my judgment is essentially that non-battleground states will increase their turnout less than battleground states."

A study by three experts in political communications after the 2000 election, based on voter surveys taken throughout the campaign, found that voters in battleground states who saw more campaign ads and candidate visits had far greater knowledge of the issues that were debated than voters in other states.

"The same pattern is likely to occur this year," said William L. Benoit of the University of Missouri, one of the study's authors. "It seems to me the interest level is higher overall, but the people who live in non-battleground states are getting shortchanged."

Some critics propose abolishing the Electoral College or doing away with its winner-take-all system. They cite Maine and Nebraska as possible models. Those states award some of their electoral votes to the winner in each congressional district.

Along with helping choose a president Nov. 2, Colorado voters will decide on a ballot initiative that calls for awarding that state's electoral votes proportionally. In other words, if a candidate won 35 percent of the popular vote in Colorado, he or she would get three of the state's nine electoral votes.

Foes of the Electoral College hope Colorado's move could spark similar initiatives in other states.

"We are worried about low turnout in this country and about Republican-state and Democratic-state divisions," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. "Wouldn't it be nice if we had national elections in this country where everyone felt like they were part of it?"

Defenders of the current system cite potential problems with moving toward a system based on the popular vote, including the cost it would add to already expensive campaigns and the extra influence it could give to densely populated states.

"Without an Electoral College, you'd have the candidates spending all their time in the most populous states and the smaller states would never be visited," said Charles E. Greenawalt II, a senior fellow at the conservative Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy in Pennsylvania. "As long as we have an Electoral College, the less populous states are still an important part of presidential elections."