The exceptionally close race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has once again raised the possibility of a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the White House by falling short in electoral votes.
In most recent scenarios, Romney is projected as the victim in this odd quirk of the US voting system. Polls show him winning more overall individual votes, yet Obama retaining a narrow lead in enough states to accumulate more than the required 270 electoral votes needed to be reelected president. The candidate who wins the most individual votes in a state, even if by just a single vote, almost always gets all its electoral votes.
“Unless something weird happens in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be talking about very thin margins. And with very thin margins and the particular configuration of the battleground states, I think there is a nontrivial chance we will end up with the outcome of someone winning the popular vote but not the electoral vote,” said Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University.
If Obama were to win the White House via an electoral vote majority while losing the popular vote, it would be the reverse of 12 years ago. That was when agonized Democrats saw Al Gore garner over 500,000 more individual votes nationally than George W. Bush, even as the Republican won by one electoral vote more than the 270 minimum, after the Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida.
But the GOP also points to another possibility outlined by political analysts: Romney and Obama ending up tied, with 269 electoral votes apiece, and the election settled by the House of Representatives — currently under the control of Romney’s fellow Republicans.
“A tie is remotely possible, but not as likely as a split,” said Keyssar. “If a tie happens, Romney is president.”
Understanding the unpredictable electoral vote scenarios will explain the logic of much of the candidates’ travels during the campaign’s final two weeks, when both target key areas in states with the potential of a crucial electoral vote payoff.
The complexities of the country’s election system begin with the Electoral College. The candidate garnering the most votes on Election Day in November wins a state, which then awards a slate of electors who vote for him during a December meeting of the Electoral College.
The Founding Fathers felt the process was the best way to ensure that candidates didn’t simply concentrate on the most populous states, since even the smallest of states would possess at least three Electoral College votes.
On all but four occasions, the winner of the popular vote has also accumulated a majority of the Electoral College’s now-538 votes (one for each member of Congress, plus three for the District of Columbia).
But a quirk in the Electoral College system has also occasionally allowed the reverse to happen: a candidate losing the popular vote but winning the presidency through the electoral vote. That happened most recently in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore.
No matter how many votes a candidate wins a given state by, he can secure only its maximum number of electoral votes. In California, the country’s most populous state, the number is capped at 55 votes.
But a candidate winning a state by just one vote is guaranteed at least three votes in the Electoral College — the two automatically allotted to each state for the number of senators it has, plus the ones a state gets for its number of US House districts.
That, says one college professor, could end up favoring Romney on Election Day, because he is expected to win all of the electoral votes from a series of smaller states like Wyoming and the Dakotas in the upper tier of the West, as well as Mississippi, Alabama, and others across the South.
The National Popular Vote movement seeks to ensure the presidency goes to the candidate who receives the most votes across the country.
“Obama will do fairly well, racking up decent votes, but because they have the winner-take-all system, even if Romney wins by one vote, he will take all the Electoral College votes,” said Everett Murdock.
The Cal State-Long Beach history professor wrote a book last spring, “Obama Will Win, but Romney Will Be President.” In its final pages, Murdock adds: “As we have learned, the popular vote is irrelevant. It is only the vote of the Electoral College that counts.”
Both the Washington Post and an online political chronicle, RealClearPolitics.com, have developed interactive maps showing the numerous ways the Electoral College vote could also tie.
The Post noted the Obama campaign’s “firewall” of New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin, the winning of which would offset Romney victories in the remaining battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Coupled with the solid and likely electoral votes for each candidate in the rest of the states, that would result in a 269-269 tie. Real Clear Politics starts with Romney having a slight edge over Obama, 206 electoral votes to 201, but an array of scenarios for each ending with 269.
Were there to be a tie, the 12th Amendment states that the House of Representatives will choose the president from among the top three electoral vote-getters. Each state — but not the District of Columbia — votes as a single bloc until a candidate gets an absolute majority of the state votes.
In theory, the 26 smallest states could band together to outvote the 24 most populous states. Each senator, meanwhile, would cast a vote for a vice president. Given the Democratic majority in that chamber, it could result in a Romney-Joe Biden administration.
Those machinations have propelled the National Popular Vote movement, which seeks to ensure the presidency goes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across the country.
Nine of the states — which under the Constitution have the sole jurisdiction to decide how to award their electoral votes — have already approved bills stating they will shift their allocation from the winner of the state’s own popular vote to the winner of the national vote, once enough states to encompass 270 electoral votes join them in their compact.
The nine early adopters, including Massachusetts, already account for 49 percent of those 270 votes, putting the movement at the halfway point.
Once enough states account for the necessary majority of 270 electoral votes, their bloc vote for the popular vote winner will not only eliminate the chance of an Electoral College tie, but also a split between the electoral and popular vote winners.
“The American people have a very strong belief in one-person, one-vote, and that the candidate with the most votes wins,” said Pam Wilmot, who heads Common Cause Massachusetts and also spearheaded the effort to have Massachusetts join the compact. “The National Popular Vote plan accomplishes both these goals in a manner that is practical and is moving forward.”Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.