But What If Obama Loses the Popular Vote?

As another thought experiment for our one-day-only, day-long Festival of Election Eve Dispatches™, here is a proposal for what Barack Obama should say tomorrow night if the Electoral College projections hold up and he gets more than 270 votes -- but Mitt Romney rolls up big enough margins elsewhere to win the popular vote.

I am a charter member of the "let's get rid of the Electoral College" movement, in keeping with the rationale laid out in loving detail at this National Popular Vote site. There are many reasons to wish that 60 or 70 thousand votes had gone the other way in Ohio in 2004, but among them is that it would have made resistance to the Electoral College a potentially bi-partisan issue. In 2000, the Electoral College (along with a lot of other factors) was rigged against Al Gore and the Democrats; in 2004, a shift in Ohio would have left George W. Bush with the popular-vote lead, but made John Kerry the president.

If it happened again this time? A reader tells us about that scenario:

If Obama loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College (as seems at least somewhat probable), conservatives will predictably howl that his is an illegitimate presidency, bereft of mandate (as a friend of mine said, they didn't even think he was legitimate when he won with 53% of the popular vote).

But here's how the President could turn that consternation on its head:  On the first day after a split-vote re-election, he could call a press conference and say (essentially) "Look, we all played by the same rules, and I won fair and square.  However, I also think the Electoral College is well past its due date.  It's an archaic relic of an era when leaders weren't sure if people could handle self-government by themselves.  I think we know better now.  So, tomorrow I am calling on the Congress to immediately take up a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College."

This would do three things:
  1. It would neutralize the "he didn't really win" argument.  If conservatives are so upset about losing the Electoral College vote, they can stop whining and do something.
  2. If such an amendment passed, it would move the elections from carry-the-state, winner-takes-all affairs in a handful of key states to campaigns to maximize votes in people-dense cities and suburbs nationwide.  Democrats would start campaigning in places like Austin, TX and my hometown of Louisville, KY; Republicans would go to Orange County, CA and Dallas, TX.  Overall, I think, a more urban electorate would tend to benefit Democrats. 
  3. Taking the election national might do a lot to increase voter turnout.  If the campaigns have to make a play for voters in population centers everywhere, people who thought their votes didn't matter might be more likely to get to the polls.
My guess is that for these very reasons, Republicans would be loath to abolish the Electoral College.  And if they don't act to pass a Popular Vote amendment, President Obama will have called their bluff.

Meta-point: a truly remarkable aspect of this campaign is that neither side has spent any time dealing with the procedural issues whose importance we've been reminded of through the past four years. The Supreme Court (four of whose members are in their seventies). The %*%$&(* recent abuse of the filibuster. Gerrymandering and obstructionism in general -- and the overall breakdown of our machinery of democracy. This item is a reminder of the kind of thing we might talk about, if we were talking about this kind of thing.

More ahead. (The Festival™ runs until around the time the Dixville Notch votes start coming in.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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