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More than Electoral Votes at Stake in California

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    NEWSLETTERS

    With the presidential election only hours away, one fact is eminently clear: Barack Obama will carry California.

    According to the most recent Field Poll, the president leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 21 points, 54 percent to 33 percent, with the rest undecided.

    That's a landslide by anyone's definition. But California is only one of the 51 voting jurisdictions on Nov. 6, albeit the largest with 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

    Yet, in what virtually all astute observers describe as a nail biter, could it be possible that one candidate might win the electoral votes, while the other carries the largest number of popular votes?

    Sound familiar?

    That's exactly what happened in 2000. Republican George W. Bush won the presidency that year with 271 electoral votes, while Democratic challenger Al Gore captured 500,000 more popular votes. The result was acrimonious for both sides.

    Republicans winced because their candidate won with less than a popular majority, casting a pall over Mr. Bush's legitimacy. Democrats groaned because although their candidate collected more popular votes, they were trapped in a time warp by a seemingly (to them) archaic rule in the name of the Electoral College.

    Sure, the nation got over it, but it was an awkward time for all. Fast forward to the 2012 election. Most of the "numbers" guys figure that if Romney wins the electoral vote, he will easily capture a slim popular majority.

    Yet, with Obama the path is not as certain.

    The same quantitative experts believe that there is a greater possibility that if Obama gains the necessary number of electoral votes, he may fall short in garnering a popular majority, which would place us in the political purgatory the nation suffered 12 years ago. Now let's circle back to the role of California in the election.

    About 18 million voters have registered for the election. Of that number, we can expect that 75 percent will vote on Tuesday, slightly down from the 82 percent who participated in 2008.

    Using the Field Poll data as a guide, it would seem that Obama may capture about 8.1 million votes, compared with 5.4 million for Romney, or a surplus of about 2.7 million votes. Those votes could go a long way toward assuring a popular national majority for Obama in a close election if he also captures the necessary number of electoral votes.

    Why do we care?

    For the same reasons we cared in 2000. with the nation already more polarized than any time in recent memory, the last thing we need is a split decision on the presidential vote. Republicans have less to worry about than Democrats.

    Still, if California comes through big in an Obama electoral win, than the nation may rest a little easier on Nov. 7.

    Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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