Win or lose, Obama faces electoral disaster

If he wants even a chance at governing effectively, Obama needs to win both the popular and the electoral votes. The odds are against it.

WASHINGTON, October 29, 2012 — The United States has held 56 presidential elections. In four of them the loser had more popular votes than the winner, but lost in the electoral college. Only once, in 1876, did the losing candidate (Samuel J. Tilden, a Democrat) receive an absolute majority of popular vote and still lose the election (to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes). 

That could happen again this year. Republican Mitt Romney currently holds a lead over President Obama according to several polls, that lead taking him to just over half of all voters in Gallup and Rasmussen polls.

Romney leads Obama in several other polls, though with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote. The odds are good that Romney will win the popular vote.

The electoral math is less clear. Romney holds a significant lead in states totaling 191 electoral votes (his smallest lead being 5 percent in Arizona), while Obama holds a significant lead in states totaling 201 electoral votes (his smallest lead being five percent in Minnesota). In states with 146 total electoral votes, the candidates are within five points of each other, for the most part statistically tied within the margin of error of the polls. 

The bulk (104) of Obama’s electoral votes right now come from three states: California, Illinois and New York. Three of the four largest toss-up states lean to him: Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Aside from Florida, the toss-up states leaning to Romney are relatively small. 

If Romney doesn’t peel away two of the biggest three states leaning to Obama, it’s almost impossible for him to win the election. This is true even if his support deepens across the board. A 2 percent shift in Romney’s direction across the country would leave him with an absolute majority of the popular vote, but still without the electoral votes to win. The shift has to come in those big-three toss-up states.

Hence even though Romney leads nationwide in most polls, the odds are still better than even that Obama will win the election. 

In the wake of his election victory in 2000, many Americans considered George W. Bush’s presidency illegitimate. The demonstrations against him began even before his inauguration. The role of the Supreme Court in his victory didn’t help, but a significant part of the population was adamantly opposed to him before he’d had a chance to earn their hatred. 

A similarly significant piece of the electorate despised Obama from his first day in office and considered him illegitimate, even though he quite clearly won the 2008 race. If he wins in the electoral college and Romney wins an absolute majority, or even a significant plurality of the popular vote, that chunk of the electorate will grow in both size and vehemence.

The GOP will almost certainly retain a majority in the House of Representatives, and that majority will find itself pushed into an even stronger resistance to Obama by a large and furious constituency. 

After the polarizing campaign he’s run, Obama will be unable to build bridges with the GOP regardless of the popular vote. If he is to have any hope at all of governing effectively by anything other than executive fiat, though, he can’t just win the electoral vote. He desperately needs a popular majority. He’s unlikely to get it.

A divided electoral/popular vote is the worst outcome we could get from this election. It’s also the highest probability, with Obama winning the electoral vote. The Twitter universe has been hot with threats against Mitt Romney should he win the election, and also with threats of riots. Were he to win the electoral but not the popular vote (the least likely outcome), those threatened riots might actually happen.

It’s hard to say how serious those threats are, but he’ll face immediate fierce opposition even if he wins both the electoral and popular votes.

Whoever wins the election faces a daunting task of leadership. It’s been said ad nauseum that this is a deeply divided electorate and that ours is a deeply divided country. Even though it’s banal, it’s also true. Effective governance is more than getting legislation passed; it’s also leadership. Obama hasn’t demonstrated that quality outside his core constituency, and he isn’t going to find it in himself now. If Romney doesn’t have it, his administration will be a failure. 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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