The Campaign Spot

Could Pennsylvania Republicans End Obama’s Reelection Hopes?

Could the 2012 election be decided in the coming months by the Pennsylvania state legislature?

Well, in a way… yeah.

PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi wants to allot Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes on a congressional district by district basis, rather than the current system of winner take all.

In a state like Pennsylvania, where Democratic candidates for President have won every election since 1988, it could be a way for Republicans to avoid a total loss.

Pileggi says he wants to change that “winner-take-all system,” and guide the system used in Maine and Nebraska through Pennsylvania’s Legislature this fall, before the 2012 presidential votes are cast. Republicans in both chambers say the bill has a strong chance of moving fast enough to be approved for next year.

“The system we have now, is a winner-take-all system, the system I am proposing would more precisely conform the electoral college to the popular vote and it would make the presidential election more relevant across the state, give voters more of a sense that they are active participants in the presidential election.”

As PoliticsPa notes, in 2008, that would have meant President Barack Obama, who won the state 21-0 under the current winner-takes-all law, would have won by a mere 11-10, if Pileggi’s law was in place. Mind you, Obama won Pennsylvania, 55 percent to 44 percent; it is quite possible he will underperform that total. Also note that the state’s U.S. House delegation shifted from 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans to 12 Republicans and 7 Democrats in 2010. The state is losing one congressional district in the coming redistricting.

If Republicans wanted to muscle it through, they would have the votes; the GOP holds a 30-20 majority in the Senate, and a 112-90 majority in the House, and Governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, who has already indicated support for the idea.

Moving 10 to 12 votes from Obama to the Republican would drastically alter the calculation to reach 270 electoral votes, with Obama’s chances of retaining Indiana almost nil, and North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and that lone elector in Nebraska looking quite iffy.

UPDATE: A surprisingly good article about the proposal from… Mother Jones. Really.

After their epic sweep of state legislative and gubernatorial races in 2010, Republicans also have total political control of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, three other big states that traditionally go Democratic and went for Obama in 2012.

Nor is there anything obviously illegal or unconstitutional about the GOP plan. “The Constitution is pretty silent on how the electors are chosen in each state,” says Karl Manheim, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles. The GOP plan “would certainly increase the political advantage of politically gerrymandering your districts,” he adds.

For now, the Democrats’—and Obama’s—only real way of fighting back is political. “The political solution if there is one is going to have to come from getting people outraged about this,” [Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law professor at Yale University] says. “This is not American fair play, it’s a partisan steamroller changing the fundamental rules of the small-d democratic game for purely party advantage. Trying to structure the world so that even the person who wins the state loses the state’s electoral vote: that is new under the sun.” He adds, “This is big.”

That article notes that there are no equivalent opportunities on the other side, states where Democrats have legislative majorities in state that is reliably Republican in presidential races. West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas come closest, and it’s not clear Obama would win many districts in those states.

The heat that would come on Pennsylvania GOP legislators would make the Wisconsin protests look like a tersely-worded letter of disapproval. Some Republicans are likely to be wary of a proposal that appears to “changing the rules after the game has started.”

But most of these states have a simple political geography: vast swaths of Republican-leaning rural and sometimes suburban districts balanced by, and sometimes outweighted, by densely-packed, deeply Democratic urban districts. It’s not surprising that frustrated Republicans would tire of seeing their votes rendered moot by high (some would argue suspiciously high) turnout in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, etc. often gives Democrats the edge in these key states.

The prize for the audacious move would be enormous for Republicans: They would establish, arguably, a GOP lock on the presidency until the country’s demographics and political geography changed.

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