As I’ll explain below, I think Silver understates the risk of a “false positive” in America’s most important election system.
But even if his number is correct, it strikes me as unacceptable for there to be a 1-in-25 chance of our democracy being led by a politician that loses the popular vote.
The culprit here, of course, is the creaky, 19th-century political apparatus known as the electoral college.
Our system distributes voting power in our presidential races not by the principle of one-person-one-vote, but instead uses a quirky system that distributes lopsided political power to different states.
It is a leftover from a time when communication was far slower and when the states were far more like separate federated nations than members of a permanent, integrated union.
In the past, Republicans enjoyed a distinct advantage in the electoral college system, because their candidates tended to fare well in low-population rural states that are “gifted” extra power.
But in recent political contests, Democrats have erased that edge.
They’ve done so first by dominating the biggest states in a way that gave them an easy pool of electoral college votes (a big strategic advantage) and then by capturing their own cadre of small states: Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington DC.
This has leveled and even tilted the playing field.
The potential for this tippy system to actually “throw” an election has felt tangible all year. Romney and Obama have been essentially tied in the national polls, with one or the other occasionally eking out a narrow lead.
But Obama has dominated in the electoral college standings. Even now, following Romney’s recent surge, Obama leads in states that give him 294 electoral college votes — 24 more than he needs to win a second term.
As noted, Romney has eked out a lead in the horse-race poll. If the election were held today, he might very well win the popular vote while still falling 26 electoral college votes short of a win.
To put that in perspective, to make up that extra ground, Romney would need to flip Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio. A pretty sizable and unfair burden for a guy who’s already “winning.”
Before talking about the extra risks that exist now — new weaknesses in the electoral college system — let me point out that this isn’t theoretical stuff. In 2000, it wasn’t hanging chads in Florida that doomed Al Gore, or even the Supreme Court.
It was our long-established system that redistributes political power.
Gore beat George W. Bush by roughly half a million votes, but in our weird wonky system, the Democrat was doomed by the 7,000 vote spread in tiny New Hampshire.
Bush won there, earned a lopsided 3 electoral college votes, and that tipped him the race.
In theory, tis kind of thing is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime anomaly. Most pollsters expect that the electoral college numbers will fall into line with the popular vote near the end of most campaigns — because that’s what has happened historically.
But things are changing in American politics. The states are more polarized, less fluid. It’s much, much harder for Romney to “convert” Pennsylvania, or for Obama to capture a state like Indiana.
What’s more, a growing number of states are moving toward early voting and absentee ballot systems that could weirdly skew outcomes. Consider this dispatch from today’s Wall Street Journal.
Nearly one in five Ohio poll respondents had already cast their ballots—and they favored Mr. Obama by a 63%-37% margin. People who haven’t yet cast their ballots favored Mr. Obama by 48%-46%.
Which means that even if Romney makes a strong closing argument, a big, cornerstone state like Ohio could in theory be off the table by late October.
What would it mean if we stumbled into a four-year stretch with an “accidental” president? George W. Bush pulled it off, managing to govern in his first term with panache that suggested a popular mandate.
Especially if Democrats hold control of the Senate, Obama might be expected to do the same, though Fox News and Rush would have a field day.
Hopefully, the bigger and more enduring impact would be a move to seriously question the value and appropriateness of an antiquated system that both the left and the right would have good reason to distrust.