When Fidel Castro recently underwent intestinal surgery, there was suddenly a whirl of news stories in the U.S. media of the type usually reserved for rock stars and champion athletes. What is this love-hate fascination with the ruler of a small island nation? Is it the tempestuous Cold War history, Cuba’s close proximity to Florida, memories of the boy Elian or the beautiful beaches and palm trees?
Certainly all of those are part of the mystique. But when it comes to our political leaders’ obsession, the answer is more fundamental. Simply put, Fidel Castro is hugely responsible for who gets elected president of the United States. That may sound strange, but it’s true. And it illustrates the worst aspects of our peculiar system of electing the president.
The presidency is the only elected office where a candidate can win a majority of the popular vote but lose the election. Instead, a candidate wins by capturing a majority of Electoral College votes won state by state in winner-take-all contests.
Most states are strongholds of either the Democratic or Republican parties, creating a presidential battlefield of “safe” states and “undecided” states. As a campaign strategist, the winning calculus is simple: you ignore the safe states and focus on the handful of battleground states that decide the winner.
Yet as we saw in the last two presidential elections, two battleground states were most important: Ohio and Florida.
Florida, our fourth largest state with 27 electoral votes–one-tenth of the number needed for victory–is the biggest of prizes in the presidential sweepstakes. Voters in Florida are much more important to who wins the presidential election than voters in any other state except Ohio.
The extremely close presidential race in Florida is heavily influenced by a particular group of voters: Cuban Americans. They are a well-financed and vocal minority with a leadership of Cuban exiles that for decades has loved to hate Fidel. Both Democrats and Republicans fall all over themselves to court the Cuban vote, which comprises only one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. This special interest group has much greater influence than its size should warrant for no other reason than the crucial role that Florida plays in our presidential election.
Recall the fiasco around the Cuban boy Elian, the six-year-old who survived a nightmarish ordeal at sea, only to get caught in the nets of presidential campaign politics. Vice President Al Gore, who was running for president at the time, disregarded his own administration’s policy by making a pilgrimage to Florida to support the Cuban leaders’ bid to hold the boy in the United States. The Clinton administration had to order law enforcement to forcibly remove Elian. It was a high-stakes drama, yet if Elian had been Haitian instead of Cuban, or if his plight had unfolded in Wyoming, a solid GOP state with only three electoral votes, no one would have noticed–or cared.
But events in Florida are dramatically amplified, especially when Cuba is involved. Anything related to Cuba degenerates into political pandering to the anti-Fidel vote, because small shifts in the Florida vote can have huge impacts.
This is one of the many reasons to change how we elect the president to a national popular vote. There are ample incentives for both Republicans and Democrats to support such a move. If a mere 60,000 voters in Ohio had changed their minds and voted for John Kerry, he would have won the presidency even while losing the national popular vote to President Bush by 3 million votes. And the Electoral College method denied Al Gore the presidency in 2000, even though he won the most votes nationwide.
GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch, John McCain and the late Strom Thurmond have supported reforming or abolishing the Electoral College. Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. have introduced constitutional amendments to institute direct election of the president. The most innovative approach has been proposed by NationalPopularVote.com, which utilizes the ability of states to enter into compacts with each other to award each state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
Whenever you see national news related to Cuba or Fidel, reflect on how our system gives such influence to a small minority of voters. If you are in the right state, and the right group of voters, you can bring powerful politicians to their knees.
Steven Hill is author of ’10 Steps to Repair American Democracy’ and director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation.The Byrne Report will return next week.