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How Likely Is an Electoral Vote/Popular Vote Split?

By Sean Trende - October 12, 2012

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At the same time, large blue states where Obama hasn’t spent money or doesn’t have much of a ground game, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, might swing disproportionately toward Romney, though not far enough to result in outright wins. This would inflate Romney’s popular vote margin, but do little for him in the Electoral College. Indeed, in the past 11 days the biggest swings have come in Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina (four to five points), while states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Nevada (the three most likely contenders for electoral vote number 270) have swung only two points.

But I think there are three other things to consider. First, we don’t get state polls as frequently as national polls. Iowa and New Hampshire have been polled just once since the first presidential debate. So poll averages tend to lag national averages here.

Second, there is a different group of pollsters in the mix for state polls as opposed to national ones. Some of the pollsters who have had a Democratic tilt to their surveys this cycle aren’t running national polls. At the same time, some of the pollsters who have had a Republican tilt aren’t running state polls.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this is an uncertain time for the electorate. Republican enthusiasm is apparently on a spike, while Democratic enthusiasm has dipped. Voters’ impressions simply aren’t well-conditioned right now, and might change rapidly. It wouldn’t surprise me if different respondents gave different responses about their certainty of voting and for whom they plan to vote, even on the same day.

For an example of how things might look during a more stable time, consider where the race stood on Oct. 1, the culmination of a fairly stable time in voter preferences. At the time I pulled these data together (for a presentation on Oct. 2) Obama led by 3.7 points in the RCP Average. At the same time, this is how the states lined up:

 

Electoral vote number 270 was almost exactly at the national margin. 

So what’s the bottom line? If the race is close on Election Day -- less than a point -- there really could be a national vote/electoral vote split. Since the overall tendency is for the Electoral College and popular vote to match up, you wouldn’t give more than 50-50 odds of it occurring. I’d call it about 1 in 3 chance, which just happens to be the number of times we ended up with a split decision in the three races decided by less than a point (although there is an argument that Kennedy lost the popular vote -- an argument that does not include conspiracy theories about Chicago vote counting --, but that is a story for another day).

What if the popular vote margin is larger than a point? I think the odds are slim that there would be a disconnect. This year doesn’t really seem akin to other years where we’ve seen large mismatches between the popular vote and where the electoral vote number 270 is located. It’s not a blowout like 1964 or 1972, nor is there a substantial third party presence, as there was in 1968 and 1980.

Still, given the result in 2008, I don’t think that we can completely write off the possibility that Romney could lose the Electoral College even if he were to win by more than a point. Now, 2008 was a borderline-landslide year; this year will almost certainly be decided by a closer margin than that election. It’s also difficult to say whether the discrepancy we noted in 2008 was a result of noise in the data or whether the Obama campaign’s efforts actively created such a split. 

The tendency over the course of this cycle has been for the popular vote in the states to trend toward the national vote. Given this tendency, and the overall history of the Electoral College, the smart money suggests that these state polls will revert to a mean somewhere around the popular vote in relatively short order. If there aren’t any more large shifts in the next two weeks and we see the same split persist, we will have to revisit this. But for now, I wouldn’t give an electoral vote/popular vote split of more than a point any better than a 1 percent chance of occurring. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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