If Democrats are the good guys, will they always finish last?

For all the hoopla and all the fundraising and all the rah-rah rallies, Democrats are facing the prospect of a slaughter in the general election.

For all the hoopla and all the fundraising and all the rah-rah rallies, Democrats are facing the prospect of a slaughter in the general election.

The polls indicate that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have slight leads nationally. But as everyone learned in 2000, winning the most votes doesn’t mean you win the election.

The truth about the American system is that it is a very crude proportional representation system that requires candidates win states, not just overall vote totals. So, winning huge in California doesn’t matter, if you lose in all the small states. It’s a fact that the GOP has known for a long time and it’s why that party has worked so hard to win in the smaller “red” states.

Why spend tens of millions of dollars trying to win California, when they can win every mid-western and southern state?

Obama’s campaign has made a lot claims about his ability to win the little states and to effectively blow up the red-state/blue-state electoral map. And the Clinton campaign has argued that it doesn’t have to change the electoral map, because it can hold all the traditional states and pick up one of the swing states, like Florida or Ohio.

But reality is a brutal thing. And the reality at this stage in the game is that it isn’t even close. Republican nominee John McCain would crush either of them if the vote were held today.

Electoral-vote.com is one of the best non-partisan site on the web for aggregating polls and other data, and right now, the site is showing an Obama versus McCain electoral map and a Clinton versus McCain electoral map.

The maps take all the available polls and plug them in to show who would win which state. It even color codes the map to show Strong Democrat, Weak Democrat, Barely Democrat, Tied, Barely Republican, Weak Republican and Strong Republican.

The algorithm used to create the map is based on three overriding principles:

The most recent poll in every state is always used.

If no other polls were taken within a week of the most recent one, only the most recent poll counts.

If one or more polls were taken within a week of the most recent, all of them are averaged, weighted equally.

Using all of the available polls, the site has come up with a stark picture for Democrats.

Electoral votes are the number of votes apportioned to each state. To win the election, a candidate needs 270 of a possible 538 electoral votes.

As of today, in an Obama versus McCain election, McCain would win 303 electoral votes to Obama’s 226 with Colorado and its nine votes too close to call.

For Clinton the numbers are pretty much the same. In her case, McCain would win 304 votes with her picking up 203 but with Ohio and Tennessee too close to call. With those two states, Clinton could get to 234, but that’s still a substantial win for the GOP nominee.

To put it in perspective, the last time a Republican topped 300 electoral votes was in 1988, when George Bush (the Contra Arms sales one) clobbered Michael Dukakis. In 2000 and 2004, George Bush (the Iraq war one) received 271 and 286 respectively.

Of note for Democrats is that Michigan and Florida, the two states which have been penalized for holding their contests early, are both weak or barely Republican. Between them, the two states represent an 88 vote swing.

That’s the election right there.

So, what do all these polls mean? After all, polls are just snapshots of a moment and the general election isn’t even underway. And the Democrats don’t have a nominee, so are being asked hypothetical questions, which is always a poor way to poll.

Even so, these electoral-vote.com numbers are still something that the Democrats have to be concerned about, because they point to an uncomfortable reality.

Namely that under the electoral vote system, the country remains a basically center right-leaning electorate.

And yet, Clinton and Obama are both running left leaning campaigns based on universal health care, financial bailouts and Iraq withdrawals.

To win in November, the Democratic nominee will need to start looking for ways to bring his or her stances back to the center of the spectrum. Right now, both candidates are playing to their bases. In a general election, they will have to expand their appeal without alienating the core of the party.

If they don’t, McCain will be the next president.

Michael Hale is a former journalist and political hack who doesn’t think the Pennsylvania primary can get here soon enough. You can read his blog at north60hale.blogspot.com