2012 race: Will the popular-vote winner lose the Electoral College tally?

Romney is edging ahead in some national polls, but Obama is hanging onto leads in key swing states, raising the possibility of a very confusing election night

Mitt Romney and President Obama greet each other before the second debate on Oct. 16: The candidates remain neck-and-neck ahead of the election.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Since his convincing win in the first debate on Oct. 3, Mitt Romney has surged into a lead over President Obama nationwide. The latest Gallup poll gives Romney a six-percentage-point advantage — 51 percent to 45 percent — among likely voters. Still, Obama is holding onto a narrow lead in the swing states likely to decide who ends up with the most electoral votes. If that split holds until election day, Romney could finish ahead in the popular vote while Obama could win the Electoral College tally and, with it, a second term in the White House. The last time such a split happened on election day was in 2000, when Al Gore finished with a narrow lead in the popular vote but lost the presidency to George W. Bush, who eked out a controversial win in the Electoral College. Before that, there hadn't been a similar case since the 1800s. Will this year be another of those rare split verdicts, in which the will of the states trumps the preference of the overall voting population?

It really could happen: The popular and electoral vote have gone hand-in-hand in 53 of our 56 presidential elections, says Charlie Cook at National Journal, but there's a very real chance that 2012 will be one of the rare exceptions. The damage from negative ads that Team Obama broadcast in several battlegrounds — slamming Romney on Bain Capital, outsourcing, income taxes, and offshore bank accounts — left the GOP challenger with "scar tissue" that could sink him in swing states even if he finishes with a clear lead nationwide.

"The possibility of a popular, electoral vote split is very real"

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Don't count on it: Well, sure, anything is possible, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. But "I wouldn't bet the farm" on a divided outcome. The momentum that gave Romney a lead nationally has given him a shot at Pennsylvania and Michigan, two states many analysts have been putting in Obama's column. The president has probably lost his edge in Ohio, too. If anything, Romney's poised to win the popular vote and the Electoral College. And if Obama rebounds "to win enough battleground states to win the EC, he's going to win the popular vote, too."

"A popular-vote/Electoral College split?"

If it happens, conservatives shouldn't complain: If this rare fate befalls Romney, says Daniel Foster at National Review, some Republicans will be tempted to badmouth the Electoral College. "That would be a catastrophic mistake." A presidential election tipped by electoral votes "affirms that we vote as citizens of the several states," not a massive glob of residents separated by meaningless lines on a map. That's not a distortion of our democracy. It's the way it was designed to work.

"The old college try"

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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