A popular-vote/Electoral College split?

Hey, who’s up for another 2000 election — or 1876?  Charlie Cook and other analysts are warning this week that we may see another split between the outcomes of the popular vote and the Electoral College, but color me skeptical:

Partisans still hoping that their candidate will build a clear lead in the presidential contest are likely to be disappointed. The race seems destined to be a close one, with the outcome remaining in doubt to the very end. President Obama won the second debate, but not by nearly enough to make up for his devastating loss in the first one. Obama was on the verge of putting the race away heading into the first debate, but his weak performance and Mitt Romney’s commanding effort effectively changed the race’s trajectory. Although Obama’s poll numbers are no longer dropping, he is locked in a tight contest: He trails Romney by 1 to 4 percentage points in national polling, yet he still holds a fragile lead in the Electoral College.

Romney entered the first debate with an edge arguably in only one battleground state: North Carolina. Going into the second debate, the former Massachusetts governor also led narrowly in Florida and Virginia, putting him ahead in three of 11 battleground states. Obama now holds small leads in ColoradoIowaNew Hampshire, and Wisconsin, with a slightly wider advantage in Nevada. He still leads, in my judgment, inOhio by about 4 points (although going into the second debate, one senior Romney strategist claimed that the two men were essentially tied at 47 percent in the Buckeye State). Romney is polling far back in Michigan andPennsylvania, states that are effectively noncompetitive.

Although history and this column have argued that the popular vote and the electoral vote usually go in the same direction (that’s what happened in 53 of 56 presidential elections), today, Romney’s national popular-vote situation is different than his Electoral College challenge. Romney’s scar tissue in swing states—the damage inflicted on him by negative ads funded by the Obama campaign and Priorities USA, targeting Bain Capital, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing, income taxes, and bank accounts in Bermuda, the Caymans, and Switzerland—is still a huge problem. This is compounded by the fact that before the ads aired, voters knew very little about Romney; because of that, they had no positive feelings or perceptions to help him weather the assault. As a result, the attacks stuck as if he were covered in Velcro. Hence, the swing states, many of which have endured saturation advertising since June (73,000 ads in Las Vegas alone), behave differently than the fortysomething other states that have seen little advertising. …

I am now reconciled to the fact that this will be a race to the wire. I am watching Ohio and a handful of other swing states that are right at, or near, the 270-electoral-vote tipping point. In the end, the odds still favor the popular and electoral vote heading in the same direction, but the chances of a split like the one in 2000 are very real, along with the distinct possibility of ambiguity and vote-counting issues once again putting the outcome in question. Ugh.

Does the possibility exist?  Sure.  Is it “very real”? I suppose since it’s real, it’s very real, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.  In our entire history, it has happened exactly three times in 56 presidential election cycles.  The last time was twelve years ago, but previous to that, one has to go back 124 years.

This long shot would be a national nightmare, but a media dream.  One reporter (I can’t recall who) tweeted yesterday that journalists who aren’t pulling for that outcome need to rethink their commitment to their profession.  I’d say that those journalists who do root for this outcome need to rethink their priorities.  It would be another weeks-long mess, hardly what this country or its citizens need, regardless whether it sells a few more papers.

I consider this with the same seriousness as talk of brokered conventions.  They’re always possible, and they almost never happen.  In this case, Cook probably needs to check a few of his assumptions, since Pennsylvania and Michigan are closer in recent polling than he credits, and with that I’d suspect that Ohio is probably not giving Obama an edge, either.  Suffolk has already pulled out of Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, declaring that their polling gives Obama no chance to win any of the three states.  If Obama manages to win enough battleground states to win the EC, he’s going to win the popular vote, too — or perhaps Cook thinks that Romney’s going to get massive margins of victory in California, New York, and Illinois.

Besides, the law is clear. Whoever win the Electoral College wins the Presidency.  The national popular vote is irrelevant.  Those of us who stayed awake in civics class knew that in 2000, too.

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