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Mark Shields: Under Electoral College, Only Votes Cast in Ohio Really Count

In the cliffhanger presidential election of 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Republican President Gerald Ford, the margin of victory in 20 states (totaling 299 electoral votes) — including California, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas — was less than 5 percent of the vote.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama confounded the confident predictions of the nation’s leading conservative sages, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Barone, and won re-election over Republican Mitt Romney, the contested battleground had dramatically shrunk. In just four states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia (totaling 75 electoral votes) — was the winner’s margin of victory less than 5 percent.

Every campaign has basically only two finite resources it can spend: time and money. Between them, in the fall of 2012, candidates Obama and Romney made 73 campaign visits to Ohio, 58 visits to Florida and 45 trips to Virginia. Ten of the top 15 media markets in the entire United States where both presidential campaigns spent to buy TV time, mostly to attack each other, were to reach voters in Florida, Ohio and Virginia.

In short, if you happen to live in either Vermont (a reliably blue Democratic address) or in dependably red and Republican Wyoming, you will have no presidential candidate visiting your state. No presidential campaign will spend a nickel to seek your vote through advertising — for which you might be grateful. But the fact is that if you do not live in a closely contested state — add Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and, maybe, Pennsylvania to the four most competitive 2012 states — then you don’t really matter. Your vote does not count, because both parties know, today, how your state’s electoral votes will be cast in 2016.

Sure, presidential nominees and their running mates travel to California and New York and Illinois and Texas to raise money. But these places are political ATMs and not campaign destinations.

The late and surpassingly wise Tim Russert of NBC News and Meet the Press was asked on the eve of the last presidential election he covered, 2004, what the key to victory would be. With both joy and insight, he answered: “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!” He was right. President George W. Bush barely carried the Buckeye State over his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. If Kerry had won Ohio, he would have won the White House with 271 electoral votes.

In fact, in the last 16 presidential elections, Ohio has voted for the winning candidate 15 times. Only John Kennedy, in all that time, has won the White House without carrying Ohio. And in Ohio, Ottawa County, located 15 miles east of Toledo with Part Clinton as its county seat, has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every presidential election since 1944 when, for some reason, it preferred Thomas E. Dewey over Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now that the national presidential battleground has gone in a generation from 20 fiercely contested states down to just four, maybe it’s time to admit that voters in California, Maryland, Mississippi and Texas don’t really count in choosing our national leader. Unless we’re willing to abolish the undemocratic Electoral College and go to direct election of our presidents, then why not save a lot of time and money and hand it all over to the good citizens of Ottawa County, Ohio?

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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