Popular Vote Count, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are neck-and-neck in national polls, while Obama has an edge in crucial battleground states that will decide Tuesday’s election.
The dynamic sets up a possible outcome that has happened rarely in American politics and could undermine the credibility of the victor — Romney beats Obama in the overall vote, but the president gets reelected by winning the decisive Electoral College.
It would be the fifth time in history that the candidate who got the most overall support didn’t win the election, and the first time that an incumbent president prevailed without capturing the popular vote.
Analysts acknowledge that such an outcome could happen, especially when the race is so tight, but they called it unlikely.
State results generally follow the national trend, they say, so the chances were remote that Romney’s victory margin in states he wins will be so much larger than Obama’s in states the president wins that it would counter the Electoral College result.
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“If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama is not just the favorite in the Electoral College but probably also in the popular vote,” Nate Silver wrote last week in the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog that analyzes polling data and trends.
Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics.com, wrote last month that the chances of a popular/electoral vote split were about one in three if the candidates are within one percentage point of each other in the overall count.
Under the Electoral College system, each state is worth a certain number of electoral votes based on population. The winner of the popular vote in each state gets its electoral count, with 270 of the 538 available needed for victory.
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The last split between the popular and electoral vote was 2000, when Democratic Vice President Al Gore outpolled Texas Gov. George W. Bush by more than 543,000 votes in the raw count but narrowly lost the electoral tally.
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In an outcome decided by a controversial Supreme Court ruling that gave Florida to Bush by 537 votes, the Republican challenger ended up with 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266, while Gore got 48.4% of the popular vote to 47.9% for Bush.
Prior to that, all previous occurrences were in the 19th Century, when the population was smaller and spread among fewer states. In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland by 233-168 in the Electoral College even though Cleveland won 48.6% of the popular vote to 47.8% for Harrison.
Twelve years earlier, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden by one electoral vote, 185-184, while Tilden won 50.9% of the popular vote to 47.9% for Hayes. The result was so contentious that it took a special electoral panel to decide that Hayes was the winner.