Looming Prospect? Obama Wins Electoral Vote Romney Wins Popular Vote
Fasten your seat belts because predictions that hyperpartisanship will grow no matter who’s elected President have now gotten even more grim with this new twist — which is being increasingly suggested by various analysts:
Most polls at this moment suggest GOP nominee Mitt Romney is in the lead nationally, but surveys in the nine or so swing states are registering a narrow advantage for President Obama.
So here’s a prospect worth contemplating: What if Romney carries the popular vote, but Obama regains the presidency by winning 270 votes or more in the electoral college?
“I think it’s a 50/50 possibility — or more,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a political strategist for former president George W. Bush.
“If the election were held tomorrow, it wouldn’t just be a possibility, it would be actual,” added William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who also served as a policy adviser to former president Bill Clinton.
Not good news. If (the remaining number of) independent voters, moderates and centrists who don’t idolize Fox News or MSNBC thought things were bad now and that attempts to delegitimize Barack Obama via such synthetic and false issues such as his birth certificate hit a new low, wait until we see the new lows in the event of this happening. Not that it would be entirely new:
That kind of split decision between the electorate and the electoral college would mark the fifth time in American history — and the second time in a dozen years — that the person who occupies the White House was not the one who got the most votes on Election Day.
But part of it would be new:
What has never happened before is an incumbent president being returned to office after the majority of the electorate voted to throw him out.
Every modern president to be re-elected — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — has gotten a bigger share of the vote in their second bid for office than their first, and with it, a chance to claim a mandate.
A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern.
If Obama is re-elected that way, “the Republican base will be screaming that Romney should be president, and Obama doesn’t represent the country,” McKinnon predicted. “It’s going to encourage more hyperpartisanship.”
Veterans of the Bush White House understand that problem well. Bush was never able to shake the accusations of some Democrats that he had “stolen” the 2000 election in a recount of Florida votes that required a U.S. Supreme Court decision to determine the winner. Then-Vice President Al Gore had won the popular vote that year by 500,000 votes.
“A close election is a polarizing event, and a discrepancy between the popular outcome and the electoral vote only adds to the polarization,” said Karen Hughes, who served as a counselor to Bush. “It rubs a raw nerve even rawer.”
And that kind of split decision may well happen more often in the future, if the nation’s political system remains both deeply and closely divided.
Polarization amplifies the quirkiness of the electoral college system by encouraging the candidates to ignore the nation’s biggest population centers, except for fundraising purposes, and to devote their energies to winning over that narrow slice of voters who live in states where the Election Day outcome is in doubt.
But the bottom line is that these ARE the rules of American’s democracy’s game, like it or not.
That wouldn’t stop not just hyperpartisanship but those who benefit with $$$ by hyperpartisanship (read that: talk radio hosts and ideological based cable networks) to fan the flames of more partisanship. And they would have material — such as statements by Obama and Hillary Clinton who wanted electoral college reform after 2000.
But two realities:
1. These are the rules of the American game, no matter who wins the electoral vote.
2. Big Bucks are to be made in fanning the flames of hyper-partisanship which can bring increased ad revenues, audience share, and readership.
So the rules won’t matter if this happens. What will matter is that some wills see an attempt to fan the flames of the partisan divide to increase their followings and revenues — and you don’t have to be a psychic (like some of these folks) to predict this.
The election night drama of 2000 may be recreated this year, as experts say there is a real chance for one presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the presidency thanks to the Electoral College system.
Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Report, said there’s a 10 to 15 percent chance Republican nominee Mitt Romney could collect more votes than President Barack Obama but not reach the 270 electoral votes necessary to oust the incumbent.
“In 53 out of 56 elections the popular vote and the electoral vote have gone the same way – that works out to 95 percent,” he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute. “So of course it could happen, but it’s very, very unlikely. But now I think there’s a fair chance at that. And if that happens, Romney would be the one likely to come out on the popular vote side and Obama on the electoral vote side.”
Electoral votes are distributed among states based on population, but thanks to high concentrations of like-minded voters in certain states and other factors, it’s possible for splits to happen. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush edged Democrat Al Gore in Florida by just hundreds of votes, an outcome that tipped all of Florida’s 25 electoral votes into his column. But Gore garnered a plurality of votes nationwide.
Current polling shows Obama with a slight lead in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa, and Ohio, while Virginia is a toss-up. Even if Virginia goes for Romney, that would be enough electoral votes for Obama’s re-election. The popular vote split scenario could emerge if Romney blew out the margins in deep red states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arizona.
It’s déjà vu.
The hard fought, tersely tight 2012 presidential election looks more and more like a contest that could end with one candidate winning the popular vote while the other wins the electoral vote. Our deeply divided and sharply polarized nation might witness the second Electoral College misfire in the last four presidential elections — misfire defined here as awarding the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote. That nightmare scenario could be politically destabilizing in a nation so politically fractured.
In 2000, the last time this happened, national politics were relatively stable. Indeed, the 2000 Electoral College popular vote split inspired much of the deep animosities now so redolent in contemporary politics.
The 2000 Florida voter imbroglio might be retrospectively remembered as a mild dust up compared to the chaos that would erupt if the popular vote is thwarted for the second time in 12 years — accompanied by vote recounts in a half dozen or more key states. Some are even warning of a 169-169 tie in the Electoral College, resulting in the election of the next president by the House of Representatives.
And this time it seems unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would rush in and resolve any electoral controversies.
Some kind of electoral disaster looms chillingly possible. Current polls and much expert opinion forecast an unusually close election, with a large number of states likely decided by relatively few votes. This is precisely the electoral scenario most likely to produce a split between the electoral and popular vote.
A number of pollsters and poll-watchers said they simply didn’t trust the polls right now: They figured that either the national polls or the state polls were slightly off. “I still wouldn’t bet on [a split],” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “Right now, the gap looks too large to me to be real. I can’t see Obama leading by the margins he appears to have in some of the swing states and still be trailing by 2-3 points nationally. And I think the most likely explanation is that the national polls right now are a little off in part due to the influence of Gallup and Rasmussen.”
Another argument I heard was that with the polls this close, the election really comes down to turnout. “The number of variables in terms of turnout that still exist are major,” e-mailed David Winston, director of the Winston Group. “Party ID, minority composition, younger voters [all] make it more complicated to assess.’
In other words, in an election this closely divided and with so much effort focused on historically low-turnout groups like Latinos and young voters, the polls have to do a lot of guesswork to figure out the shape of the electorate, and they may be guessing wrong. If Obama’s ground game outperforms Romney’s ground game in a big way, Obama could easily win the popular vote. But if Obama’s coalition stays home, then Romney could easily win both the popular vote and the electoral college.
Most of the pollsters I spoke to seemed cautiously confident that we weren’t going to see a split between the electoral college and the popular vote. Such splits, they said, are very rare in American history, and they tend to be the result of extraordinary circumstances or electoral irregularities (like the “butterfly ballots” in Florida). Nevertheless, a split is, at the moment, what most of their polls are showing.
But there’s good reason to root for a split. It would mark the second time in four elections that the loser won (the first time was 2000) and could galvanize support to get rid of the College in favor of a true “one person, one vote” system.
The main argument in favor of the College, that it’s a distinguishing feature of federalism and protects smaller states, seems rather weak in comparison to the main argument against it: That it’s inherently undemocratic. Wyoming has roughly 189,000 people per electoral vote. California has about 679,000.
It’s unlikely that the delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention anticipated such an uneven distribution of the population. Moreover, the Electoral College does not protect small states so much as it gives disproportionate power to swing states, large and small. Nevada and Utah both have only six electoral votes. But whereas Nevada voters could very well affect the outcome of the race—Mr. Silver lists Nevada second, after Ohio, on his “return on investment” index—Utah voters might as well stay home. With direct elections, Utah voters would have exactly as much power as Nevada voters. Democratic candidates would have a reason to campaign in Mississippi, and Republican candidates in Vermont.
The U.S. actually came close to abolishing the College after the 1968 presidential election, when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by 110 electoral votes but only 1 percent of the popular vote. And George Wallace obtained 46 electoral votes, raising the possibility that a future third-party candidate would force a contingent election. The House approved an amendment for direct popular elections with a 40 percent threshold (followed by a runoff if necessary), and President Nixon endorsed it, but Southern Senators and small-state Senators filibustered.
If President Obama wins the College and loses the popular vote, lawmakers from the South, at least, might suddenly become more amenable.
There exists a possibility, based on a census of polls, Mitt Romney could win the nationwide vote by a percentage or two. But the odds show President Obama still holds a majority, though narrowing in the states that could deliver him the 270 electoral votes he needs to assure reelection.
Imagine having to live through another four years with that scenario in play. Americans hate a split verdict and history shows dissatisfaction ran rampant when that happened, which it has four times in our history. Rest assured, if that happens this time around, whoever wins the electoral college vote will state emphatically only the Electoral College matters since that result is the constitutionally mandated criteria for winning the presidency.
If Romney wins, Democrats will make a case, saying the national vote should not be discarded. The Republicans can’t, since George Bush won the electoral college vote and not the popular vote.
It’s understood the Obama and Romney campaigns have teams of lawyers ready to legally challenge narrow defeats in individual states.
Prof. Terry Madonna, political professor and pollster, recited these facts, among others, to a luncheon crowd at a seminar hosted by Conestoga Bank President Richard Elko at Loews Hotel last week. His take on the election as of that moment showed the key to victory would be decided by nine to 12 states. These were leaning one way or the other. But counting what could safely be said to be in the treasure chest of either candidate, Obama held a comfortable lead in the race for the 270 electoral votes. Predicted by recent polls were Obama holding 143 electoral votes from 10 states, while Romney had 13 states for a total of 76 electoral votes.
—Josh Marshall says “Spare Me” about Karen Tumulty’s Washington Post piece linked above and discussed a bit by yours truly who agrees that hyperpartisanship would increase. Here’s a big chunk of his case:
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I don’t want to make this about her because it’s a very timely question and clearly it’s already getting canvassed and frothed up by partisans. So let me direct the following not to her but to those laying out what are clearly a set of factoids designed to suggest that an Obama win in this way would be unique and untenable.
1. “What has never happened before is an incumbent president being returned to office after the majority of the electorate voted to throw him out.”
2. “Every modern president to be re-elected — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — has gotten a bigger share of the vote in their second bid for office than their first, and with it, a chance to claim a mandate.”
3. And finally … “A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern. If Obama is re-elected that way, “the Republican base will be screaming that Romney should be president, and Obama doesn’t represent the country,” McKinnon predicted. “It’s going to encourage more hyperpartisanship.”
Now, the possibility of election without a national majority exposes a genuine glitch in our system. No doubt. It is also true that these are the rules we play under and there is little reason to think that we’d have just the same result if both candidates were trying to maximize raw vote nationwide. Think how many more votes both candidates would mobilize in New York, California and Texas — not to mention among African-American voters in hopelessly red states in the South. But mainly to those making these arguments I would make the following points: Get over it and most of all STFU.
This happened no more than twelve years ago for the first time in a century. Democrats were crushed and outraged. And in response to various suggestions that newly-inaugurated President George W. Bush would need to govern in a form of national unity government Bush responded by pursuing one of the most maximalist and aggressive agendas in recent American history.
The difference between a non-incumbent and an incumbent winning this way is no more than some sort of pseudo-fact. It quite simply is what it is. And having been perfectly happy with it twelve years ago Republicans would have no grounds for complaining now.
Now, would they have grounds to be upset? Sure. Would this lead to “more hyperpartisanship”? Please. No greater ‘hyperpartisanship’ is possible than the scorched earth, 100% ‘No’ policy we’ve seen over the last four years, which frankly is little different from the scorched earth, 100% ‘No’ policy of 1993-2001.
Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice