Until 2000, it hadn’t happened in more than 100 years, but plugged-in observers from both parties see a distinct possibility of Barack Obama winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College — and with it the presidency — to John McCain.
Here’s the scenario: Obama racks up huge margins among the increasingly affluent, highly educated and liberal coastal states, while a significant increase in turnout among black voters allows him to compete — but not to win — in the South. Meanwhile, McCain wins solidly Republican states such Texas and Georgia by significantly smaller margins than Bush’s in 2004 and ekes out narrow victories in places such as North Carolina, which Bush won by 12 points but Rasmussen presently shows as a tossup, and Indiana, which Bush won by 21 points but McCain presently leads by just 11.
One possible result: Even as the national mood moves left, the 2004 map largely holds. Obama’s 32 new electoral votes from Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia are offset by 21 new electoral votes for McCain in Michigan and New Hampshire — and despite a 2- or 3-point popular vote victory for Obama, America wakes up on Jan. 20 to a President McCain.
According to Tad Devine, who served as the chief political consultant for Al Gore in 2000 and as a senior adviser to John F. Kerry in 2004, “it certainly is a possibility. Not a likelihood, but it is a real possibility.”
Some observers, such as Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant and pollster who worked on Sen. Joe Biden’s Democratic primary bid, see this as unlikely given the dramatic increase in Democratic Party enrollment and President Bush’s near record-low approval rating. Also skeptical is Nate Silver, a political cult-favorite blogger whose statistical model — which factors in population change since electoral votes were last allocated in the 2000 census — shows McCain as more likely than Obama to lose the Electoral College while winning the popular vote.
But others, pointing to the competitiveness of the last two elections, predict that this will be another such tight race. If they’re proven correct, this would be the fourth in the past five elections, making for the most closely contested run of presidential contests since those spanning the popular vote-Electoral College splits of 1876 and 1888.
Hank Sheinkopf, president of Sheinkopf Communications and an adviser to Bill Clinton in 1996, warns that such a split “is anything but impossible.” While he gives Obama a slight edge in the general election “because he doesn’t have George Bush riding with him,” he predicts that “Obama’s going to get big votes for a Democrat in the Southern states, but not enough to win any new electoral votes. So it’s a distinct possibility that he could lose the entire South, split the Midwest” and end up not as president but rather as the second coming of Al Gore. When asked the odds of this playing out, he offers “50-50.”
Devine points out that Bush’s strategy in 2004 “was predicated on massive base turnout” that pushed up margins in safe states. He doesn’t “expect the McCain campaign to be directed the same way — using issues like gay marriage on the ballot to get the base to the polls — so McCain won’t have the same forces at play to drive out the popular vote.”
Recalling the impact of Ralph Nader’s third-party run in 2000, Devine also wonders if Bob Barr’s Libertarian run might play out differently, costing McCain popular — but not electoral — votes, while producing another popular-electoral split.
Lloyd M. Green, who served as research counsel to George Bush in 1988, also rates Obama a slight favorite and predicts that, if the Democrat does win, he’ll do so with “even larger margins in New York and Clifornia than in the last several elections [in 2004, Kerry won the two states by a combined margin of a little more than 2.5 million votes], and yet with all that margin run-up in safe states, this will end up a tight general election.”
In a sentiment also expressed by Sheinkopf and Green, Devine sees little chance of this happening if Obama wins the popular vote by more than 4 points. “But if he gets it by two or three points, it is plausible," he said. "Absolutely.”
Green, who sees “about a 20 percent chance” of Obama winning the popular voting while losing the Electoral College, doesn’t expect anything resembling a blowout: “Given that the only clear and clean majorities [since 1992] were in 1996 and 2004, ... this election will have the ferocity of all recent elections.” It’s a tough trend to buck, he argued, noting that “Americans traditionally change their religious affiliations more often than their party affiliations.”