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Expecting the Electorally Unexpected

Throughout the Republican primary season, the favorite fallback story angle for pundits was one that hyped the possibility of a deadlock that would lead to an open or contested GOP convention. That was always highly unlikely, and in the end it didn’t come close to happening. Mitt Romney wound up sweeping the field and the Tampa convention was the usual boring political infomercial, rather than one that harkened back to the colorful and unpredictable political conclaves that were par for the course in an earlier era of American history. The yearning for this anomaly said more about the desire of the media for something interesting to cover than anything else, but it must be admitted that it was always a possibility, albeit one that had very little chance of coming to pass. Several months later, the media has a new meme along the same lines: the possibility that one candidate will win the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. This, too, is unlikely. But given both recent history and the way some of the polls are looking, this one is a bit more difficult to dismiss.

As much as it is difficult to understand what exactly the myriad of polls are telling us about the presidential race, there does appear to be a difference between the way President Obama’s standing in the national polls has declined and his ability to remain competitive if not ahead in many of the key swing states. If this continued, it could mean that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote but still lose the Electoral College as the president won razor-thin majorities in a few battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa and Colorado. If this happened, Democrats who cried bloody murder in 2000 when George W. Bush found a similar path to the presidency would enjoy the turnabout and Republicans who defended the arcane system would suddenly discover the necessity of its abolition. But before we start preparing ourselves for another Bush v. Gore Armageddon, it’s important to point out that while it is possible, it’s probably not going to happen.

I’ve taken issue with some of Nate Silver’s conclusions about the race recently, but I’ve great respect for the former baseball analyst’s willingness to look at the statistical truth where it can be discerned from what he rightly calls the “noise” that tends to distract us. Silver assessed the likelihood of a number of different scenarios and puts the current odds on their coming to pass in this manner:

How often the following situations occurred during repeated simulated elections.

  • Electoral College tie (269 electoral votes for each candidate) 0.4%
  • Recount (one or more decisive states within 0.5 percentage points) 10.1%
  • Obama wins popular vote 63.8%
  • Romney wins popular vote 36.2%
  • Obama wins popular vote but loses electoral college 1.7%
  • Romney wins popular vote but loses electoral college 5.8%
  • Obama landslide (double-digit popular vote margin) 0.7%
  • Romney landslide (double-digit popular vote margin) 0.2%
  • Map exactly the same as in 2008 0.1%
  • Map exactly the same as in 2004 <0.1%
  • Obama loses at least one state he carried in 2008 99.5%
  • Obama wins at least one state he failed to carry in 2008 4.6%

I think the liberal writer is overly optimistic about Obama’s chances, though you can bet he will revise those numbers in the last days before the election if it looks like Romney is heading to victory. But I have no quarrel with his assessment of the other scenarios, especially the one that shows that there is slightly more than one in chance in 20 that Romney wins the popular vote while Obama wins the Electoral College.

The point here is that whether you believe Gallup and its tracking poll that shows Romney up by seven percentage points or Investors Business Daily/ TIPP and its survey that has Obama up by six or the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that calls the race a tie, the odds are that in the last two weeks the swing states will follow the national polls or vice versa. It is far more reasonable to suggest that the trend will break one way or another (or rather, hold steady as Romney continues to gain ground in most surveys that do not, like IBD, have samples that are heavily skewed toward the Democrats) than anything else. That’s why it is also reasonable to assume that whoever wins the presidency may be able to influence enough state races to swing an evenly divided U.S. Senate with them as well.

Nevertheless, the fact that the popular vote diverged from the Electoral College result only 12 years ago means this isn’t merely a discussion that revolves around the unkind fates that befell Democrats Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland in 1876 and 1888. If that happens again in 2012 (which would make it only the fifth time in American history that result was obtained), but especially if it happened to a Republican this time, then I would have to agree with New York Times editorial writer Juliet Lapidos that this would probably mean the end of the Electoral College. This will probably not happen, but we may see another Electoral College/popular vote split before we experience another contested national political convention.


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