Could a change in the way states allocate their votes in the Electoral College have changed the outcome of the 2012 presidential election? The answer to that question is generating outrage among Democrats over schemes that are currently under consideration in Virginia and some other states. That’s because had every state in the union discarded the winner-take-all rule currently used in all but two and instead employed one in which each Congressional district would be an individual contest, Mitt Romney might have earned a slim victory despite losing the popular vote.
Nebraska and Maine currently divide their votes in this manner giving both major parties a chance to win individual districts. That is each state’s prerogative since there is nothing in the Constitution saying that the winner-take-all rule is sacred. But in 2012, when President Obama won a narrow majority in the popular vote but a decisive victory in the Electoral College, allowing such splits would have created an anomalous outcome since the president’s win was predicated on his sweep of virtually every closely-fought battleground state in which he ran up big vote totals in urban areas while losing rural counties. That’s leading Democrats to call the plan to change the system in Virginia, which Obama won by a razor-thin margin, a “sore loser” scheme that is a GOP effort to subvert democracy.
Even though Republicans in some states have been talking about this issue for years, coming on the heels of their 2012 loss, it’s hard to argue that the sore loser tag doesn’t apply. Indeed, though their plan has its virtues, the idea of changing the rules in order to skew the results a bit more in their favor instead of working on issues and producing candidates that will win on their own merits sounds like exactly the sort of foolish thing Republicans ought to be avoiding as they ponder how to do better in 2016. Nevertheless, though the plan creates some bad optics for the GOP, even its Democratic critics should admit that it is neither crazy nor essentially undemocratic.
To listen to the Obama campaign and many liberal pundits the last few days, the presidential election is a foregone conclusion and the president is a sure bet to be re-elected. But even though there’s no question the Democrats gained ground over the last week, the latest national tracking polls tell a different story. The president is ahead in none of the four most recent national tracking polls. Mitt Romney has a slender one-percentage point lead in both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls taken over the last few days, while he is tied with the president in the CNN/Opinion Research and the Monmouth/SurveyUSA/Braun poll. Taken together, and even if one is inclined to believe one more than another, the quartet of surveys illustrates that the race remains very close with either candidate in position to win.
The polls, which continue to show Romney leading among independents by a large margin, also demonstrate that the key to victory tomorrow will be turnout. Romney continues to do better among likely voters than among all those registered, something that will require Democrats to get all of their supporters out to vote. But if Republican enthusiasm continues to run high, it will be difficult for Democrats to replicate the 2008 electorate, in which they had a huge partisan identification advantage. These national numbers may not translate into an edge for Romney in individual battleground states like Ohio. That means we are looking at a possible replay of 2000, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College. Yet Romney’s camp has to believe that if they wind up with more votes overall, that is bound to translate into some upsets in swing states where most of the generally less scientific statewide polls continue to show Obama leading. That may not be how things play out, but these national numbers have to sow some doubts in the minds of Democratic strategists who know the odds of the loser of the popular vote getting 270 electoral votes is still a long shot.
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.
Last week as Mitt Romney’s post-debate surge first took hold, Democrats comforted themselves by pointing to swing state polls that showed President Obama still holding comfortable leads that ought to have ensured his election. A week later, the fluctuating numbers in the key battlegrounds of Ohio, Virginia and Florida as well as several others that must now be considered up for grabs makes it obvious that the gap between Romney’s rise in the national polls and the outlook in the Electoral College has shrunk. The Democrats’ assumption that several important states in various parts of the country could remain comfortably in their grasp while Republicans gained ground in the national polls was illogical.
As the Real Clear Politics Electoral College Map shows, the president’s seemingly overwhelming advantage in terms of states that are solid, likely or leaning in the Democrats direction is evaporating. It currently shows Obama with 201 Electoral College votes and Romney with 191 with a whopping 146 in states where the average margin in recent polls is less than five percent for either candidate. But with Romney steadily gaining ground even in states that few serious people thought would even be in play, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the ebbing confidence among liberals is justified. The question now is what, if anything, the president can do to reverse this momentum shift that appears to be on the verge of sweeping him out of the White House.
Throughout the winter and spring, supporters of defeated libertarian extremist Rep. Ron Paul were fond of claiming that they had the power to either disrupt the Republican National Convention or generate enough defections in November to sabotage the mainstream GOP’s efforts to win back the presidency. Though the Paulbots managed to amuse some bored members of the press corps at the Tampa convention, their attempts to gain attention barely deserved to be called a distraction. Their threats about affecting the vote in the general election appear to be even emptier as polling showed that much of Paul’s limited support came from Democrats crossing over to participate in GOP primaries and caucuses. However, it appears that the libertarian fringe could actually materially affect the outcome in a way that no one seems to have foreseen.
As the Associated Press reports today, three of the Republicans who will become members of the Electoral College should Mitt Romney win their states are now saying they will refuse to vote for the Republican. All three are Paul backers who somehow managed to be appointed to this usually symbolic post but who have the power to thwart the will of the voters if that is their pleasure. Two are from potential tossup states, Iowa and Nevada. Another is from Texas, a state certain to go Republican this fall. All profess to be not merely disgusted with Romney’s relatively moderate stands on the issues but angry with some of the petty slights dealt out to Paul delegates in Tampa. Together, they could deprive Romney of a majority should the election turn out to be a nail-biter. If this happens, those in the GOP leadership who insisted on net letting Paul’s name be placed in nomination or in counting the votes cast for him will rue their decisions.
The formula for electing Mitt Romney to the presidency isn’t all that complicated. He must hold all the states John McCain won in 2008, take back normally Republican states that went to President Obama such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Indiana and win at least one of the major swing states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania. That sounds easy in theory but as the latest round of polling — which, thanks to the Electoral College, are the numbers we should be watching more closely than the national tracking polls —in individual states shows, Romney’s path is far from clear.
While the certain Republican nominee should be encouraged by surveys of voters in Florida and Ohio, the numbers from Virginia and to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania are daunting. As much as the national popular vote looks to be almost a dead heat between Romney and Obama right now, the Democrat’s Electoral College advantage is clear. Even more to the point, unless Romney finds a way to come from behind in Virginia and North Carolina, putting Florida and North Carolina back in the red column won’t matter.
At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza makes an argument that although 2012 isn’t going to be anything like 2008, President Obama still has an edge over Mitt Romney in the swing states that will decide the election. While the numbers do give Obama a slight advantage, as RealClearPolitics’ Electoral College map indicates, the triumphalism about the president’s re-election we’ve been hearing lately from Democrats is more the product of bombast than insight. Stunts like the Democrats’ attempt to promote myths about the Republican “war on women” aren’t likely to change that map. More to the point is the fact that the states that will determine the winner are likely to be influenced heavily by an economy that few outside the administration and liberal editorial pages believe has been turned around.
There isn’t a lot of doubt about which states are up for grabs this November. Nor is there much uncertainty that the battle for the White House this year will more closely resemble 2000 and 2004 than President Obama’s romp four years ago. The outcome will, as Cillizza rightly understands, depend on whether the voting patterns of the last few elections will be re-written by dissatisfaction over the president’s uninspiring performance in office.