Politics & Government
7:21 am
Tue November 6, 2012

Commentary: Election Day and history

Essay

The incumbent president was a Democrat, a controversial figure whose legitimacy was doubted by millions, right from the start. His Republican challenger was a Michigan native, but one who left the state after high school, and moved east.

He found fame and fortune, and was eventually elected governor of his adopted state, then won the right to take on the sitting president. His followers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Detroit News, were convinced his election was necessary to save the nation from government spending run amok.

Sound familiar?  Sound like Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama?  Of course it does -- but it’s not. I am talking about the presidential election of 1948, held back when Romney was a baby and Obama’s mother was six years old.

That election pitted Harry Truman, who had become president when his predecessor died, against Owosso native Tom Dewey, the governor of New York. That election went down in history as the most famous upset in history. Everyone expected Dewey to win easily.

Instead, Truman ended up millions of votes ahead, and with a nearly two to one victory in the electoral college. That election was very different from this, but surveys afterwards revealed two things we may want to think about: A lot of people who voted for Truman told pollsters they were voting for Dewey instead.

Why? Well, they felt that’s they were expected to say. Voters also thought the Republican candidate was competent.

They just didn’t find him very likeable. In the end, that mattered. We don’t know what combination of factors are moving people today. We do know that about four million Michiganders are standing in lines today, exercising their right to pick their leaders.

Another million-plus already voted, by absentee ballot, including a few who since have died. But if you think you are voting for Romney or Obama, think again.

Romney supporters actually voted for Dennis Pittman, a local Republican party official from Waterford, and fifteen other men and women they never heard of. Democrats  voting for Obama are actually voting for a 77-year-old Novi retiree named Walter Sobczak, and another fifteen pretty anonymous people. They are running for seats in the electoral college. If Obama wins Michigan, as most polls indicate, Sobcazk and the other Democrats will drive to Lansing in December and cast our state’s electoral votes, which then will be sent to Washington. If Romney pulls an upset, Pittman gets to do it.

Either way, the real Michigan vote is almost certain to be sixteen to nothing, either way. That’s how the electoral college works, and whichever man wins states whose electors add up to two hundred and seventy will become our next president.

But what if Romney wins Michigan -- and Pittman decides to cast his vote for Rick Santorum instead? Well, he’d be breaking the law. But that law has never been enforced. In fact, there have been quite a few “faithless electors” thoughout history, but none ever changed the outcome.

What can change the outcome, however, is your vote. Florida was decided by five hundred and thirty seven votes twelve years ago.

Other races have been settled by a single vote. In this strange and unsettled year, the key to this election just might be you.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.