In 2004, during my tenure as chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, I did some scenario planning on possible outcomes in a very close election. I had expected that election to be decided by 3 percentage points or less, and I said this a number of times both internally and to the media.
One scenario I raised as a real possibility internally was that George Bush could win the popular vote but lose the electoral college (the exact opposite of what happened in 2000). And this scenario would have come to pass if the Bush margin in Ohio had changed by 120,000 votes. John Kerry would have won the electoral college, 271 to 266, while Bush would have won the popular vote by approximately 3 million votes. (Remember the mishap of the one electoral vote from Minnesota.)
Further, subtract 2.2 percent from the margin in each state in 2004 and Bush would have still barely won the popular vote (but by a bigger margin than Gore won the popular vote in 2000), but lost the electoral college to Kerry, 283 to 254, because Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico would have switched from Bush to Kerry.
So let’s do some similar scenario planning for 2012, when another tight election is expected. It is also expected to be decided by less than 3 percentage points, just like 2004. And today, nearly every public opinion poll shows the race within the margin of error between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
In a very tight race this November, Obama could lose the popular vote, and win the electoral college. Let me say that slightly differently: Romney could win the popular vote by more than 1 million votes and lose the electoral college to Obama by a margin of 272 to 266. What a difference in talking points that would mean for the two parties compared with the 2000 presidential election controversy.
Let me show how you I arrived at this scenario. Obama won the popular vote by a national percentage of just over 7 points in 2008. If we subtract 8 points from the margin in every state, Romney would have a little less than a 1-point victory nationally (which gives you the 1 million vote margin for him in the popular vote).
And as we subtract 8 points from every state’s margin, what happens to the electoral college? It gets much, much closer, but Obama still wins it by six electoral votes. So in one very possible scenario, Obama can lose the popular vote and still be reelected because he barely carries the electoral college.
Obviously, much can change over the coming weeks and months, and there are a variety of possibilities. The economy could get worse and Romney wins by a bigger margin and carries the electoral college. The economy could improve and Obama gets reelected comfortably in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Or it’s a close election, and as is traditionally the case, the popular vote and electoral college are in sync.
But keep in mind that in the very tight elections since 2000, we have been increasingly faced with a divergence of the popular vote and the electoral college. This happened in 2000, it could have easily have happened in 2004, and it could definitely happen in 2012. But interestingly, if there is a divergence in 2012, it is likely to benefit President Obama and not Mitt Romney.