Opinion: Polarized US political system responsible for dysfunctional elections

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore got more votes than George W. Bush, but still lost the election.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Florida gave Bush that pivotal state, and doomed Gore to lose the Electoral College.

That odd scenario — where the candidate with the most votes loses — has happened three times in U.S. history.

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Will 2012 become the fourth time it has happened?

At the moment, Republican Mitt Romney leads among likely voters nationwide in several polls.

But President Obama’s campaign remains confident because he leads in enough states to assure him the 270 electoral votes needed to capture a second term.

“We [would] win the election if it were held today,” said senior White House adviser David Plouffe.

“In the battleground states, we think we’ve got many more pathways to 270 electoral votes.”

Romney senior campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom was similarly blunt in his assessment last week.

“The cake is baked,” he said. “Something structural changed in that first debate, and all the movement has been toward Gov. Romney.”

Yet, according to statistical guru Nate Silver, of The New York Times, President Obama has about a 74 percent chance of being reelected.

Mitt Romney has only roughly a 26 percent chance of becoming the 45th U.S. president.

According to Silver, President Obama will win 295 electoral votes and Romney will net 243 electoral votes. 

Of the seven battleground states — Ohio, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin — Silver projects Obama will win all of them with the exception of Florida.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina laid out the president’s strategy bluntly in a conference call with reporters last week.

"We're winning the early vote in the battleground states that will decide this election," Messina said.

"The Romney campaign has bet that young people and minorities won't turn out. The early vote numbers are already proving the folly of that gamble, and the wisdom of our plan.”

The Real Clear Politics average of state polls in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nevada has always shown President Obama winning every one of those states.

Romney has never led in those states, which are so critical to the outcome of the electoral vote.

The 2012 presidential campaign’s turn away from the classic, straight-up, American election — where the candidate who gets the most votes nationwide wins — is another sad reminder of the extreme political polarization distorting today’s politics.

No one talks about a 50-state strategy for winning the presidency these days.

Most of the nation is now made up of fixed red states and blue states.

At best there are a dozen states truly open to casting a majority of votes for the candidate with the strongest message and best candidate.

And in those few ‘swing’ states the contest most often comes down to turnout —  Republicans and Democrats concentrating their energies on the so-called ‘ground game’ involved with getting their most reliably loyal voters to the polls.

Again, this has little or nothing to do with persuading voters that a candidate has better ideas or a better record of serving voters.

What is being executed is a cynical strategy of exciting blind partisanship and getting those folks to the polls.

As the political strategist behind George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, Karl Rove perfected the practice of “micro-targeting,” whereby political campaigns focus their efforts on purely partisan voters in specific counties and towns.

For example, in Ohio, there are four counties that will determine who wins the state and its 18 electoral votes. 

They are Franklin County (Columbus) in the center of the state, Hamilton County (Cincinnati) in the southwest corner, Lucas County (Toledo) in the northwest corner and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) in the northeast.

President Obama’s campaign and the super-PACs supporting it have spent $57 million on advertising in those counties, while Mitt Romney’s campaign and GOP-allied super-PACs have spent $58 million on ads.

Some of those advertisements have been aimed at influencing independent voters, mostly women, in those four counties.

But the majority of the ads from the campaigns and their super-PACs have been attack ads.

They aim to trash the opponent to stir the partisan base.

The same dynamic can be seen in Nevada, the state most likely to keep political journalists based on the East Coast up late on election night.

Team Obama has spent $23 million advertising there while Team Romney has spent $21 million.

All of that ad money is aimed at voters in Clark County (Las Vegas), Carson City County (Carson City) and Washoe County (Reno).

Romney’s campaign is pushing older white males to discontent and anger in hopes of getting them out to vote.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is fueling the state’s big unions, looking to them to help turn out the state’s growing minority population [a quarter of the state’s population is now Hispanic] and increasing number of younger female voters.

The bottom line in today’s presidential elections is that winning 270 electoral votes is all that counts.

In a race this close, there is one other possibility.

The magic number will be 269 votes.

Under the Constitution, a tie in the electoral results puts the election to a vote in the House of Representatives.

With the GOP in control of the House, a tie of 269 electoral votes will make Romney the president.

But wait.

With the Democrats in charge of the Senate, they can put Joe Biden in as Romney’s vice president.

That absurdity, that picture of total political gridlock in the White House and on Capitol Hill, is the perfect representation of today’s dysfunctional Washington politics in which the thoughtful voter plays no role.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.