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Richard Greener Headshot

A Close Election? Just Hype

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Americans suffer under a fundamental misconception about their presidential elections. Put simply, we have no such thing as a "national election." What we have is 51 separate and distinct state and district elections, in which we award the winner various numbers of votes in the Electoral College. The candidate who becomes the next president is the one who accumulates 270 electoral votes. The so-called national popular vote decides nothing. It's irrelevant at best and dangerously misleading at worst. George W. Bush is not the only candidate to win the presidency after losing the national popular vote.

So, why do we even have national polls and why do we pay attention to them? They teach us nothing about the eventual distribution of the electoral vote -- the vote that actually determines who will be president. In 2008, Barack Obama received 69.5 million popular votes against John McCain's 59.9 million. Obama's popular vote margin was more than 9.5 million. But, Obama won the states of California, New York and Illinois with 15.123 million votes against McCain's 9.111 million. So, Obama's margin in only three states exceeded six million, accounting for 63 percent of his national advantage. Those three states awarded Obama 107 electoral votes. In this 2012 election, nobody would contend that Obama could lose California, New York or Illinois. Romney has no chance to win any of them. Due to reapportionment, these three states will award Obama 104 electoral votes in 2012. Again, it's important to remember that no one questions that these 104 electoral votes will go to Obama.

But, what if support for Obama's reelection -- even where he may be the most popular -- is diminished from his original 2008 numbers? What if Obama wins these three states by only one million votes -- each -- a margin of 1 million popular votes in each state? He still gets all 104 electoral votes, yet he's "lost" more than three million popular votes. That's almost 5 percent of his entire 2008 national total. How would that loss appear in national polls matched against Romney? Devastating, no doubt. But would it change anything?

Of course not. The winner of California, New York and Illinois gets 104 electoral votes even if their winning margin is only one vote in each state. Thus, Obama could drop four, five, even six million popular votes from his 2008 totals and not suffer the loss of a single vote in the Electoral College. Romney might gain millions of popular votes McCain failed to get without adding even one more electoral vote.

Additionally, in 2008 Obama won Massachusetts and Minnesota combined by about 1.5 million votes. He could drop another million popular votes this time around and still win all of the 21 electoral votes these states award to the winning candidate.

The way our system works, President Obama might lose six or seven million popular votes in only five states and still retain 100 percent of those electoral votes. Willard Romney could really cut in to Obama's popularity -- he might even win the national popular vote like Al Gore did in 2000 -- while failing to put a dent in the Obama Electoral College juggernaut.

Close elections for president are actually very rare. True, we have seen two of them recently -- in 2000 (Bush 271, Gore 266) and 2004 (Bush 286, Kerry 251) where a single state made the difference. However, for 100 years before, in the entire 20th century, there was only one such close election. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won 277 electoral votes to Charles Hughes' 254. We think of our elections as close, but in fact, some of our most famous close elections were nothing of the sort.

In 1960, we all recall that JFK narrowly slipped by Richard Nixon with a popular vote margin of only 117,000. What we have forgotten, though, is that JFK had 303 electoral votes to Nixon's only 219. In 1968, when Hubert H. Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon by barely a half-million votes nationally, Nixon trounced Humphrey 301-191 in the Electoral College. And in 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford 297 to 240 in the Electoral College, Ford would have needed a change in a combination of states to overcome Carter's electoral vote victory. These elections were never as close as some might have them appear. Forget the popular vote. No one ever became president just because they got the most votes.

Typically, the losing candidate in a presidential election fails to get anywhere near the number of electoral votes that go to the winner. Reagan thumped Mondale in 1984, 525-13 after defeating Carter in 1980 by 489-49. Lyndon B. Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964 by 486-52. Nixon overwhelmed McGovern in 1972 by 520-17. In 1988, George H. W. Bush knocked out Dukakis, 426-111. Then Bill Clinton beat Bush the Elder by 370-168 and Bob Dole by 379-159.

In our last presidential election, Barack Obama won a landslide victory -- 365-173 in the Electoral College. Our elections are nearly always decisive in the only vote that matters in the Electoral College. About the only place where these contests are seen as tight, even razor-thin is on television, where the demands of show business requires that the show must go on, and on, and on until it ends on election night. In 2012 the Electoral College vote will once more be one-sided in favor of the winner. Barack Obama will be reelected by a wide margin. But, I'm sure that four years from now, all the TV networks will gear up for another nail-biter, another close election where the next president is certain to be chosen by a tiny handful of "swing states" or "toss-up states" or whatever else fits the bill allowing pundits to convince viewers they must watch everyday, all the time if they want to know what's happening.