Bush-Gore Redux? An Electoral-Popular Vote Split Is a Real Possibility

Romney holds the national lead in polls. Obama still has the edge in many swing states. And the final result will be down to the wire.

Jim Young / Reuters

Partisans still hoping that their candidate will build a clear lead in the presidential contest are likely to be disappointed. The race seems destined to be a close one, with the outcome remaining in doubt to the very end. President Obama won the second debate, but not by nearly enough to make up for his devastating loss in the first one. Obama was on the verge of putting the race away heading into the first debate, but his weak performance and Mitt Romney's commanding effort effectively changed the race's trajectory. Although Obama's poll numbers are no longer dropping, he is locked in a tight contest: He trails Romney by 1 to 4 percentage points in national polling, yet he still holds a fragile lead in the Electoral College.

Romney entered the first debate with an edge arguably in only one battleground state: North Carolina. Going into the second debate, the former Massachusetts governor also led narrowly in Florida and Virginia, putting him ahead in three of 11 battleground states. Obama now holds small leads in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, with a slightly wider advantage in Nevada. He still leads, in my judgment, in Ohio by about 4 points (although going into the second debate, one senior Romney strategist claimed that the two men were essentially tied at 47 percent in the Buckeye State). Romney is polling far back in Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that are effectively noncompetitive.

Although history and this column have argued that the popular vote and the electoral vote usually go in the same direction (that's what happened in 53 of 56 presidential elections), today, Romney's national popular-vote situation is different than his Electoral College challenge. Romney's scar tissue in swing states -- the damage inflicted on him by negative ads funded by the Obama campaign and Priorities USA, targeting Bain Capital, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing, income taxes, and bank accounts in Bermuda, the Caymans, and Switzerland -- is still a huge problem. This is compounded by the fact that before the ads aired, voters knew very little about Romney; because of that, they had no positive feelings or perceptions to help him weather the assault. As a result, the attacks stuck as if he were covered in Velcro. Hence, the swing states, many of which have endured saturation advertising since June (73,000 ads in Las Vegas alone), behave differently than the fortysomething other states that have seen little advertising.

With a race this close, small but important factors will likely be key.

About 4 million more Latinos are registered to vote this year than in 2008, and Obama has the support of 69 to 70 percent of them, according to the polls -- a finding that tops his 67 percent showing in 2008. But to what extent will lower enthusiasm levels among Latinos this year offset that support? Substantially more 18-to-29-year-olds are registered voters today than were four years ago. However, in a just-released national survey conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, Obama is leading by only 19 points, 55 percent to 36 percent, among likely voters in that age cohort, well behind the 66 percent he won four years ago. The Obama campaign is moving heaven and earth in the social-media sphere to try to boost his performance and the turnout among this key group, but will it work?

Although most observers expect that the Obama campaign will have an even better voter-identification and get-out-the-vote operation in 2012 than in 2008, hardly anyone has a clue about what kind of ground game the Romney campaign will mount. The remarkably effective Republican field operation in President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign was allowed to grow flaccid in intervening years; how much of it the Romney campaign has been able to replace or replicate since he nailed down the nomination in April is anyone's guess.

No doubt Republicans were kicking themselves on Wednesday morning after the second debate over how badly Romney muffed the Libya question. Obama, in one of the few selected questions of the evening that seemed designed to help Romney, had been asked about security mistakes that led to the deaths of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans in Benghazi. Obama ignored the question and launched into a discussion of the loss and the administration's efforts to bring to justice those who killed the four Americans. All Romney had to do was to suggest to the man who asked the question to repeat it again because apparently the president had not heard it, as he certainly didn't answer the question. Although admittedly snarky, such a move would have been devastating for the president, because he has few available answers at his disposal. Instead, Romney went off talking about what Obama said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack.

I am now reconciled to the fact that this will be a race to the wire. I am watching Ohio and a handful of other swing states that are right at, or near, the 270-electoral-vote tipping point. In the end, the odds still favor the popular and electoral vote heading in the same direction, but the chances of a split like the one in 2000 are very real, along with the distinct possibility of ambiguity and vote-counting issues once again putting the outcome in question. Ugh.