In just ten days Americans will select the man they want to be their next president. Will President Obama be reelected to serve a second term? Will America decide to fire its president and pin its hopes for the next four years on former Massachusetts Governor Willard 'Mitt' Romney? The prognosticators, pollsters, and pundits are all over the map. Both men have a decent chance of winning the popular vote, though in our system that doesn't matter since the winner is determined by electoral votes, not popular votes. In all but four presidential elections the popular vote and the electoral vote have selected the same individual. Could this be the fifth time in history that we see a divergence between the electoral college and the popular vote? The last time was in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote by about half a million over Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gov. Bush, however, captured the electoral vote 271-266 after several recounts and a pitched court battle finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 35 days after the election. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that we may see such a scenario unfold again in 2012. I can only wonder if those who were so thankful for the Electoral College in 2000 will be as thankful this time around if their candidate is on the losing side of the vote.
Having said that, there are a few possible outcomes to this year's presidential race. They are as follows:
An Electoral College Deadlock: The Dreaded 269-269 Scenario
While highly improbable, there is a slight chance this scenario could occur. It happened in the Election of 1800 when both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. The system in place then required each elector to cast two ballots for president and it was customary for one elector to vote for someone other than their preferred candidate's running mate, thus ensuring a majority for a single candidate. But in this election, all Jefferson electors also voted for Aaron Burr, which created a tie that was eventually settled by the House of Representatives shortly before inauguration day. It took more than 30 rounds of voting by the House before a deal was brokered, however, and Mr. Jefferson was officially selected as the nation's 3rd president. Could such a scenario occur in 2012? Yes, but not in the same way as in 1800 because the 12th amendment modified the way electoral votes are cast. Electors now vote separately for president and vice president instead of casting two ballots for president. In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives chooses the president with each state delegation receiving a single vote. This would almost certainly result in the selection of Gov. Romney as the 45th President of the United States because Republicans control more House delegations than Democrats and likely will do so in the next Congress as well. The choice of vice president would be left to the Senate, which would most likely select current vice president Joe Biden because Democrats control the Senate and are projected to maintain control of the chamber in the next Congress. How likely is this scenario to occur? Very unlikely. Based on an analysis by the website 270 to win, the LA Times has a good recap of what might happen in this rare instance.
Gov. Romney wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote
Given the nature of the polling process, the dynamics of the Electoral College, and a host of other factors, this scenario also seems quite low on the probability list. Yet, it could happen if President Obama's margins in the popular vote in states that favor him are sufficiently large. This seems extremely unlikely because there are no states that Obama will carry the popular vote by 30 or more percentage points like there are for Romney (Oklahoma anybody?). Of course, very few people live in the rural states where Romney will build up huge popular vote margins so they'll likely be offset by Obama's popular vote margin in California and Illinois. To win the Electoral College the governor will need to carry the popular vote in many of the swing states. As such, if Governor Romney wins the Electoral College he likely will win the popular vote as well.
The current polling data has Gov. Romney with a base of 191 electoral votes in states where he is polling at least 50%. This leaves him needing some combination of swing states adding up to 79 electoral votes to reach the magic number of 270. According to Real Clear Politics, Gov. Romney currently holds a 1-3 point lead among likely voters in most national polls. Though I am somewhat suspicious of the likely voter screens developed by the various polling organizations this year as they seem to diverge a little too much from the registered voter polls, I think the governor has an advantage in the popular vote right now. Research indicates that likely voter models may eliminate up to 23% of respondents who actually do cast votes in elections, so the advantage may not be as large as some polls are indicating. Getting the requisite 79 electoral votes necessary to capture the presidency means Gov. Romney needs to win Florida (29 votes), North Carolina (15 votes), Virginia (13 votes) plus some combination of swing states adding up to an additional 22 electoral votes. The quickest path would be to capture Ohio (18 votes) and New Hampshire (4 votes), though polls in both states give President Obama an advantage in each. Failing to win those two states, Romney would have to win three states from among Nevada (6 votes), Colorado (9 votes), Iowa (6 votes), and Wisconsin (10 votes). Of these, he seems least likely to win Wisconsin and Nevada. For these reasons I would rate the chances of Romney winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote as slim. If Romney is elected as the 45th President of the United States it will be with a narrow victory in the Electoral College and the popular vote.
President Obama wins both the Electoral College and the popular vote
President Obama begins with a built-in advantage in the Electoral College as more states with more votes lean Democratic than lean Republican. Republicans have the advantage in large, empty space states while Democrats enjoy the advantage in the densely packed urban states. According to 270 to win, Obama begins with an electoral vote base of 217. I would add Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes to that total since no reliable polls have shown Gov. Romney with a lead there. That puts the president at 237 and needing just 33 electoral votes to secure a 2nd term. Obama can accomplish this by winning just three states (Ohio (18 votes), Wisconsin (10 votes), and either Iowa (6 votes) or Nevada (6 votes). Recent polls show the president with a lead in each of these states. Interestingly, the tie scenario rears its ugly head if Obama were to carry only Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire (4 votes), though I think it highly unlikely to occur.
Obama wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote
There is a better chance that Obama will lose the popular vote while still winning the electoral vote than there is for Gov. Romney to do that but I think the likelihood is still miniscule. Obama's popular vote margins in the states where he leads are likely to overcome Gov. Romney's totals barring an unforeseen wave breaking against the president in the final days of the election. As shown above, the aggregate of the polls seems to indicate that whoever wins the popular vote will also win the Electoral College.
And the winner will be....
Given the scenarios above, I think the electoral college advantage for the president may simply be too much for Governor Romney to overcome. It is possible, but not probable at this point. There are still 10 days to go until election day, though millions of Americans have already voted. So far, 915,000 ads have aired during this campaign and more than $2 billion has been spent seeking the presidency. As I stated last month, the race is pretty much exactly where it was in March. As I did then, I think the president will eke out a narrow win in the popular vote and an electoral vote victory somewhere around 290 to 248. As such, he will have no mandate to govern (nor would Romney if he were to win). All in all, the next four years are likely to look pretty much like the last four years.
As usual, I reserve the right to update this projection if new information or developments appear to be poised for a significant impact on the outcome November 6th.