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Will George

No Matter What Happens, Relax

By George F. Will
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A21

During tonight's tumult of election returns, remember:

If, for the fourth consecutive election, neither candidate wins a popular vote majority, relax. There were four consecutive such elections from 1880 to 1892. In 1876 a candidate (Samuel Tilden) got 51 percent -- and lost (to Rutherford Hayes). Six elections since World War II produced plurality presidents -- 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, 2000. Woodrow Wilson was consequential although he won his first term with just 41.8 percent and his second with 49.2 percent.

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If today's election produces vast consequences from slender margins, relax. This is not unusual. In 1916 a switch of 1,771 votes in California would have enabled Charles Evans Hughes to rescue the nation from President Wilson. In 1948 a switch of 30,262 votes in California, Illinois, Ohio and Nevada would have replaced President Harry Truman with Tom Dewey. In 1968 a switch of 53,034 votes in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Missouri would have denied Richard Nixon an electoral vote majority and, because George Wallace won 46 electoral votes, the House probably would have awarded the presidency to Hubert Humphrey. In 1976 a switch of 9,246 votes in Ohio and Hawaii would have enabled President Gerald Ford to beat Jimmy Carter with 270 electoral votes -- but 1.5 million fewer popular votes than Carter had.

If George W. Bush loses, relax. Turbulence is normal. Since 1900, not including Bush, there have been 18 presidents, of whom only five served a full eight years or more. Only 11 of the 42 presidents before Bush served two consecutive terms. Between 1837 and Wilson, only Grant served two consecutive terms. If Bush wins, this will be what the poet William Carlos Williams called "the rare occurrence of the expected." All the winners of elections after 1960 will have been from the Sunbelt -- Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Southern California.

This is the first wartime election since 1972, when the president presiding over a divisive war trounced an antiwar candidate in 49 states. In wartime 1968, the nation narrowly decided to change the party holding the presidency. In 1944 the commander in chief won a fourth term, but with only 53 percent of the vote, and in 1864 the president might have lost if Atlanta had not been captured before the election.

Watch Nevada. Even though in 1864 it had only one-fifth the population required for statehood, it was admitted to the Union to give an embattled wartime president three extra electoral votes. Bush could lose Nevada's five votes because of his decision -- wise but unpopular -- to proceed with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Watch Maine's 2nd Congressional District. Maine, like Nebraska, allocates an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. Kerry will win Maine, but Bush could win the 2nd. Watch Ohio. If Bush carries the state hit hardest by job losses, can we retire the canard that Americans "vote their pocketbooks''? Many issues often trump banal calculations of short-term material well-being.

So watch the black vote. If, as several pre-election polls suggested, Bush doubles the 9 percent of African American votes he won in 2000, it will be partly because efforts were made, especially on black radio, to use Bush's stance on same-sex marriage to appeal to the black community's cultural conservatism.

In 2002 Bush became the second president since the Civil War whose party increased its House and Senate seats in the middle of his first term -- although a switch of just 82,763 votes out of 75.7 million votes cast would have given Democrats control of the House and Senate. If today Republicans again gain seats, this strength will beget strength: It will trigger the retirement of some congressional Democrats disheartened by the prospect of protracted minority status.

If Democrat Brad Carson defeats Republican Tom Coburn for Oklahoma's open Senate seat while Bush is carrying the state by, say, 30 points, this remarkable ticket-splitting might lead, mercifully, to abandonment of the blue state-red state dichotomy. Concerning which, if Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is reelected in South Dakota, a great anomaly will continue: four Democratic senators from the two Dakotas, where Bush's 2000 victories were by an average of 25 percent.

Perhaps this will reconcile liberals to the fact that 16 percent of Americans elect half the Senate. Of course, some egalitarians will continue to consider the Constitution's provision regarding the composition of the Senate an unconstitutional violation of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.


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