A California Jackpot for the G.O.P.?

I realize this is a New York-based blog, so I’m really going to push my luck here with California-themed posts. But there’s an unfolding story in the Golden State that could have huge ramifications for the ’08 race.

You may have heard by now about the initiative that will be on California’s June 2008 ballot that would split the state’s 55 electorate votes by Congressional district – one electoral vote for each of the 53 districts, plus two for the statewide popular vote. Two other states – Maine and Nebraska – now use this system, but they are small and their districts generally vote the same way.

But California is a different story.  On the whole, it’s a solidly Democratic state and has handed its electoral jackpot to the Democrats without much of a contest in each of the last four elections. 2008 should be no different – the Giuliani campaign’s protestations aside. But had this plan been in effect in 2004, George W. Bush would have won 22 of the state’s 55 electoral votes, even though he lost California by 1.2 million votes. Most of the districts are gerrymandered to favor one party or the other, so the outcome would (with the exception of about four districts) be fixed well ahead of time.

How consequential could this be? Put it this way: If the Democrats peeled off Colorado, Iowa, and New Mexico next year (all states Bush won by narrow margins in ’04), the simple change of rules in California would wipe out the effect of that three-state gain.

Right now, the vote-by-district plan is popular: a Field Poll this week shows it passing by a 47-35 percent margin. When respondents were told that it might hand the G.O.P. an extra 22 electoral votes, the margin was reduced slightly, to 49-42 percent.

Needless to say, Democrats are going to fight the proposal. They now have their own initiative, which would mandate that the state’s 55 electoral votes be given to the winner of the national popular vote. (This mirrors an effort underway in several states to forge a “national compact” as a backdoor means of circumventing the Electoral College and electing the President by popular vote.) The G.O.P.’s argument against the Democratic plan is that it would render the state completely irrelevant in a presidential campaign. Neither side, of course, is really interested in adopting the most sound plan – they are both doing what’s in their best interests.

The outcome won’t be known until next June. If it passes, the Democrats’ fall calculations will change dramatically – suddenly, they will need to win an extra three or four states they hadn’t been planning on. Of course, passage isn’t a foregone conclusion. Remember how the Democrats killed Governor Schwarzenegger’s initially-popular redistricting initiative back in 2005?

Other states may also get in on the act. North Carolina has taken some steps in this direction. Who else will?

A California Jackpot for the G.O.P.?