“I think it’s a 50/50 possibility — or more,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a political strategist for President George W. Bush.
“If the election were held tomorrow, it wouldn’t just be a possibility, it would be actual,” added William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who also served as a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.
That kind of split decision between the electorate and the electoral college would mark the fifth time in American history — and the second time in a dozen years — that the person who occupies the White House was not the one who got the most votes on Election Day.
No incumbent president seeking a second term has ever won the electoral college and lost the popular vote.
Every modern president to be reelected — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — has gotten a bigger share of the vote in their second bid for office than their first, and with it, a chance to claim a mandate. (Though Clinton got more votes than his first race and won in the electoral college, he was re-elected in 1996 without winning a majority in a three-way race against Republican Bob Dole and independent Ross Perot.)
A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern.
If Obama is reelected that way, “the Republican base will be screaming that Romney should be president, and Obama doesn’t represent the country,” McKinnon predicted. “It’s going to encourage more hyperpartisanship.”
Veterans of the Bush White House understand that problem well. Bush was never able to shake the accusations of some Democrats that he had “stolen” the 2000 election in a recount of Florida votes that required a U.S. Supreme Court decision to determine the winner. Then-Vice President Al Gore had won the popular vote that year by 500,000 votes.
“A close election is a polarizing event, and a discrepancy between the popular outcome and the electoral vote only adds to the polarization,” said Karen Hughes, who served as a counselor to Bush. “It rubs a raw nerve even rawer.”
And that kind of split decision may well happen more often in the future, if the nation’s political system remains both deeply and closely divided.
Polarization amplifies the quirkiness of the electoral college system by encouraging the candidates to ignore the nation’s biggest population centers, except for fundraising purposes, and to devote their energies to winning over that narrow slice of voters who live in states where the Election Day outcome is in doubt.
The electoral college is an artifact of an era when the lack of organized political parties and the difficulties of travel and communication prevented candidates from waging a national campaign.