The 2000 Election All Over Again?
We could be headed for another extremely close election where the Electoral Vote and the Popular Vote disagree with each other.
There have been four times in American history when the candidate who won the Presidency ended up losing the Popular Vote. The first time happened in the Election of 1824 when Andrew Jackson won the most raw votes in a four-way race, but John Quincy Adams ended up winning the Presidency when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Fifty six years later, Rutherford B. Hayes was deemed to have won the Electoral College in the 1876 Election but it was Samuel J. Tilden who actually received the most votes. A mere twelve years later in the Election of 1888, Grover Cleveland had a roughly 90,000 vote margin in the Popular Vote, but lost the Electoral College by some 60 vote. And, of course, we all know what happened in the 2000 Election. That’s four times over the course of 56 Presidential elections, less than 10% of the time in the 224 years we’ve been conducting Presidential elections. So, it’s not exactly very common and probably not something we ought to be making major changes in response to.
However, Charlie Cook is among those analysts suggesting that it could happen again this year:
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 Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, with a slightly wider advantage in Nevada. He still leads, in my judgment, in Ohio 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 and Pennsylvania, 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.
Ed Morrissey is skeptical:
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.
It’s true that this is probably an unlikely outcome. After all, we’ve had plenty of close elections before and nearly all of them have seen the Popular Vote and Electoral Vote track each other. The 2004 election comes to mind, as does the 1976 contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon fight (although Sean Trende has an interesting argument on that election today that seems to show that Nixon actually won the popular vote). In all likelihood, that’s what will happen again this year. However, I think Morrissey is discounting Cook’s argument a little too much. It’s true that Pennsylvania and Michigan are listed as “Toss-up” states at the moment, but it’s worth noting that RealClearPolitics has the polling average at +5.0 in the President’s favor in both states and that the President has been above 50% in both states in recent polling. That suggests to me that these states are going to end up in the President’s column. As for Suffolk’s decision to stop polling in Florida and Virginia in particular, they are the only polling company that has done that and both states are still being targeted by both campaigns, which indicates that they believe that both states are still in play.
For months, it has been apparent that the President has an advantage in the Electoral College while Governor Romney has a much narrower path to victory. That is largely because Obama could afford to lose several of the states he won in 2008 and still get to the 270 Electoral Votes that he needs to win while Romney needed to play an almost perfect game by picking up states like Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, not to mention Ohio, if he was going to get the Electoral Colleges magic number. That still remains the case even today, but the difference is that Romney has risen considerably in the national polls ever since the first debate. The magnitude of the rise is disputed depending on which polls you’re following, but it is real, and it makes the possibility of an Electoral College/Popular Vote split much greater. Combine that with the possibility that the results in one or more states are likely to be very close, and the possibility of a replay of the events of twelve years ago is greater than it might have been a month ago.