View Full Version : The elections. --- for the politically minded

11-01-2004, 04:45 PM

The Elections: Playing With Fire
November 01, 2004 1636 GMT

By George Friedman

We are now hours away from the 2004 presidential election in the United States. Everybody has had his say, including Osama bin Laden. It is now up to one of the strangest -- and most successful -- electoral systems yet devised, a system made even stranger by the fact that there is no longer really any such thing as Election Day. A large number of voters will have already voted, which makes it a statistical certainty that some will be dead by Election Day. We have institutionalized the graveyard vote.

At this point, if we are to believe the polls, the most likely outcome is that U.S. President George W. Bush will win a narrow victory. As we go into Election Day, the spread of the polls is from dead even to Bush being ahead by 5 percentage points. There were few, if any, polls over the weekend showing that Kerry is in the lead. In many of them, the spread is within the margin of error. However, when multiple polls confirm the same finding, the significance of the margin of error declines. Going into the weekend, Bush was ahead.

This should not be overstated. If he is ahead, it is only by a few percentage points. By past practice, the challenger normally picks up support over the weekend before the elections because undecided voters tend to support the challenger. The problem this time is not only that there are so few undecided voters, but that anyone who is still undecided after this campaign is either utterly indifferent, locked in a cave or deeply troubled. That means the normal weekend flop might happen, but given the size and makeup of the undecided vote, it is not clear that precedent applies. The last-minute surge will be small, and might easily split between Bush and Kerry or go to Kerry.

Obviously, winning the popular vote doesn't guarantee victory in the Electoral College. Therefore, it is possible Bush will win the popular vote, but lose the election. Large majorities in the states in which he has strong support -- the mountain states and the south -- make this a possible outcome. It is not a likely outcome, simply because the swing states appear to be tracking the national polls, and because several of the swing states, such as Florida and New Mexico, appear to be moving toward Bush.

It is possible to imagine Bush winning by as much as 5 points and winning a surprisingly large number of states. It is possible to imagine Kerry winning by 1 to 3 percentage points and solidly winning the election. It is also possible to imagine Bush winning by 1 to 2 points and losing the election -- or very narrowly winning in the Electoral College. What is difficult to imagine is the outcome everyone dreads -- a repeat of 2000.

It is necessary to understand the extent to which 2000 was a freak. In order to repeat 2000, two things must happen: First, the electoral vote must be a virtual tie, in the sense that except for one state (or more, but that makes the outcome even more improbable), all states are committed, without giving either candidate a majority. Second, the votes in that state (or multiple
states) must come in at a virtual tie as well. That is what happened in Florida in 2000 when the vote was tied.

On the surface, when the first vote was counted, Bush had 535 votes more than Al Gore. In fact, they had exactly the same number of votes. Any system that must count several million of anything has a built-in error rate. Anyone who has done inventory in a warehouse knows that no matter how hard you try, you will never get a perfectly accurate count. Assume, for the moment, that with your best efforts, you could count a million votes with 99.9 percent accuracy
-- an incredibly dubious proposition, since nothing is that accurate. Nevertheless, the Florida election came in as smaller than even this preposterously high accuracy rate could accommodate. Count and recount the vote all you want, and as many times as you would like, the outcome would still be flawed. Human beings don't count millions of items at the level of accuracy needed to reach a clear conclusion in Florida.

Florida was a dead tie on top of a dead tie in the Electoral College. An absolute tie might have triggered some sort of obscure law, but a virtual tie was simply something the law couldn't handle. It appeared that Bush won or -- if different rules were used or a recount held -- that Gore won. The fact was you could recount as often as you wanted and get almost any outcome you liked. The built-in error rate could take you anywhere.

In Florida, of course, the built-in error rate became the foundation for a challenge to Bush's victory. There was no way to deal with the reality of the matter -- it was a tie that would decide the election, so it was a do-over. Each side had to craft a legal argument demonstrating that its method of interpreting the tie was the only legal way to do it. The Republicans were outraged when the Democrat-dominated Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of a plan that would let the Democrats win. The Democrats praised the rule of law. All this reversed when the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of what the Republicans wanted and the Democrats were disgusted with the utter partisanship of it -- forgetting that the four Democrats on the Supreme Court voted in as much of a partisan fashion as the Republicans.

What happened in 2000 was a natural and unplanned accident. If another state had gone Republican or Democrat, then Florida would have been irrelevant. You needed two absolute ties to make this happen. The probability of a tie in the Electoral College and a tie in the remaining state -- a difference so small that it can't be counted -- is the least likely scenario.

The problem is this: While Florida was a case where no one could count the vote, a barrier has been broken in which challenging the outcome of the election no longer requires an outcome below statistical measurement. Both parties have readied challenges to the legitimacy of the election that would seem to apply regardless of the count. The Republicans are challenging newly registered voters and the Democrats are going to challenge the Republican challenges. There are other issues on the table as well. For example, the Democrats have made it clear they don't trust the new electronic voting machines.

In other words, the election could wind up in a legal tangle if it is no more than moderately close, but the difference is above the statistical screen. A cultural shift appears to have taken place since 2000 in which the very legitimacy of the electoral system has been cast into doubt. There have certainly been episodes of fraud in many elections in the United States. The miracle is not that there have been frauds, but that there have been so few and that the republic has survived them.

If we are to believe reports that have become ubiquitous, John F. Kennedy stole the 1960 election. More precisely, Chicago's mayor and leader of the Cook County Democratic Party -- at least by urban legend -- at the behest of Chicago Mafia chief Sam Giancana waited until it became clear how many votes were needed to give Illinois to Kennedy, and then whipped them up -- no electronic voting machines needed. If the story is true, it would not have been the first or last time an election was stolen in the United States.

Richard Nixon lost that election. Again, according to legend, he was approached by Republican leaders and told that he should challenge the election. Nixon -- and if this is true, then it was certainly his finest moment -- refused to challenge on the basis that even if he won, the presidency would have been rendered worthless.

We are now reduced to this question: Where have all the **** Nixons gone? If we are to believe what each party is saying, there are no longer any limits to which either party would go to challenge the election legally. That about puts the situation into context: Nixon had a finer ethical sense than the leadership of either party today. He let Kennedy steal the election rather than sully the presidency. The current crop would try to find any means to win the election, regardless of consequences.

We do not think that the factual basis of the 2000 challenge is likely to repeat itself. We do believe it is possible for a pseudo-factual basis to be generated. If that were to happen, it would be the most geopolitically significant event we could imagine -- far more important than whether Bush or Kerry wins. Either one winning would be better -- regardless of who one votes for -- than a situation in which the United States is paralyzed for weeks or months by legal maneuvering and the new president takes office with a sense of scandal and illegitimacy hanging over him.

It was relatively placid in 2000 as years go, but 2004 finds the United States engaged in global warfare. Were the United States convulsed in a constitutional crisis lasting three months, the consequences would be enormous, both in the perception of the United States and the practical ability of Bush -- who would still be president -- to govern. If nothing else, the intellectual bandwidth of the political system would be absorbed in the crisis rather than the war, and the war cannot be allowed to drift for four years.

One would expect the political leadership to be unified on one thing: avoiding this. Even if the double miracle of 2000 were to repeat, it could be expected that the two parties would deliberately avoid a 2000-style confrontation because there is a war on. We would expect them to emulate the spirit of Nixon -- not that high a hurdle, one would think. But the fact is that they are prepared to replicate 2000 regardless of whether the facts repeat themselves -- and indifferent to the war.

A modest proposal presents itself: In the event that the election is seriously contested, both Bush and Kerry should agree to withdraw their names from candidacy. They should then meet and jointly select a third person that they can both agree would be a suitable president, and ask their electors to vote for him.

We do not know either of these men and don't know whether their ambitions are such that they could tolerate this solution. Nor do we know if they could agree on a suitable substitute who could straddle the difference. Frankly, we think they are likely to fight for the last morsel of power. Possibly, a political movement could generate itself in this country to force a compromise.

What is clear is this: A repeat of 2000 is unlikely unless the two parties create one. They seem committed to that course. If they do, they will be playing with fire during war. From an objective standpoint, a victory by either candidate too substantial to be challenged by the lawyers is far preferable to what seems to be coming -- a close election and the country torn apart.

(c) 2004 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.


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