Split Election May Fan 'Red Rage'

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama debate on October 16, 2012 during the second of thr
Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama debate on October 16, 2012 during the second of three presidential debates at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. AFP PHOTO / Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, it could happen. Mitt Romney could win the popular vote while Barack Obama wins the electoral vote -- and gets re-elected. It could happen if Romney wins overwhelming popular majorities in the South while Obama ekes out narrow victories in the rest of the country. But the consequences this time would be more serious than they were in 2000, mainly because Republicans would be less likely to accept the result than Democrats were.

In 2000, most Americans accepted the Supreme Court decision for the same reason the Court felt compelled to make it: political necessity. In many countries, the narrow resolution of a disputed election on dubious legal grounds would have brought protesters into the streets, and possibly violence. It is a tribute to the American public's respect for the Constitution, and for the Supreme Court as the voice of the Constitution, that nothing of the sort happened. Al Gore set the tone when he told the country, "Let there be no doubt: while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it."

Polls showed most Americans did believe the Supreme Court justices were influenced by their personal political views in deciding the election. Nevertheless, nearly three quarters said they accepted the court's ruling as legitimate -- including two-thirds of Gore's supporters. The public wanted closure. "The Supreme Court follows the election returns," Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley once said. In 2000, the Supreme Court created the election returns. And the American public seemed more relieved than angry.

Things might not be so manageable this time.

For one thing, Republicans are angrier than Democrats. In last month's Fox News poll, 20 percent of Republicans described themselves as "angry" at the Obama Administration. Conservative anger is what sustains the talk radio industry. Liberals get angry too, but that's usually when there's an antiwar movement.

Even in 2000, Republicans were less willing to accept defeat. More than half of Bush's supporters that year said if Gore were declared the winner and inaugurated, they would refuse to accept him as the legitimate President. Only a third of Gore supporters said the same thing about Bush.

Conservatives have been raising the question of Obama's legitimacy ever since he got elected. That's what the birther movement was all about. Obama's enemies could not challenge the results of the 2008 election, so they challenged Obama's eligibility to serve as President. They demanded that he prove he was a native-born American. (He did.) They continue to associate the President with "foreign" ideas and "foreign" influences. Romney said this month that President Obama's policies are "foreign to anything this country has ever known."

If Obama carries battleground states by narrow margins, Republicans are likely to charge voter fraud. And demand investigations. In a Monmouth University poll this month, 51 percent of Republicans said voter fraud is "a major problem" in this country. Only 23 percent of Democrats called it a major problem.

Mark McKinnon, a former political strategist for President George W. Bush, told the Washington Post that if Obama is re-elected without carrying the popular vote, "the Republican base will be screaming that Romney should be President and Obama doesn't represent the country."

It could even set off a move to abolish the electoral college. In 2000, the electoral college was the real problem. But very few Democrats made an issue of it. Why not? One word: Florida. Democrats were so angry over the strange ballots and chaotic vote-counting in Florida -- with television fixated for six weeks on hanging chads -- that they failed to notice the larger electoral college problem. Measures were passed to fix the voting system (the Help America Vote Act). But no measure to change the electoral college ever came to a vote in Congress.

If we get another reversal in 2012, Republicans are likely to pressure for electoral reform. It would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college. That would be a difficult process. But states can change the way they apportion electoral votes on their own. Two small states -- Nebraska and Maine -- already apportion their electoral votes based on who carries each congressional district. Some states have already considered dividing their electoral votes in proportion to the state's popular vote.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have signed a compact to cast their electoral votes for the national popular vote winner. But the compact will take effect only if enough states join to comprise a majority of electoral votes. So far, the compact includes less than half the electoral votes needed for a majority.

Reform will not be easy. The only thing we can say with certainty is that, if Obama is re-elected without carrying the popular vote, partisan warfare will escalate. And President Obama's honeymoon will be ruined.