America edges toward the worst-case scenario: an Obamney victory

Two weeks from tonight, thousands of Winnipeggers will be at home watching the results come in from the 2012 U.S. presidential election. The popular vote could be close if the latest polls are any indication:

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll claims that the race is a dead heat: 48.5% for Romney, 48.4% for Obama.

Gallup’s survey of likely voters gives Romney a larger five-point lead over Obama — 51% to 46%, respectively. Widen that to registered voters, and the gap narrows to an insignificant one-point gap: 48% Romney, 47% Obama.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll of likely voters also shows a dead heat: 47% Obama, 46% Romney.

Thus the widely read Five Thirty Eight blog‘s projected Nov. 6 vote outcome represents that split in American public opinion: 50% Obama, 49% Romney as of tonight.

Razor-thin election victories are nothing new in U.S. politics. Those who remember the November 2000 election will remember waiting for days on end to find out whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be inaugurated as president the following January.

Older people might even remember the 1960 election, in which Democrat John F. Kennedy edged out Republican Richard Nixon by a mere two-tenths of a percentage point: 49.7% for Kennedy, 49.5% for Nixon. Some still say that election was “stolen” by Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Texas senator turned vice-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson, both of whom commanded fearsome political machines.

A tight race this year, though, could have a nasty twist. As many people learned in 2000, when Bush became president even though Gore won the popular vote, it’s not the American people who elect the president — it’s the electoral college.

The electoral college is a holdover from a constitutional compromise early in American history. It works roughly like this: Voters elect delegates to the electoral college, who in turn vote for the president.

Every state elects a number of delegates equal to the number of members it elects to the Senate and the House of Representatives. This creates a skew in favour of the smaller states by virtue of the fact that each state has two senators, regardless of population.

Thus North Dakota gets three votes for president in the electoral college while neighbouring Minnesota, with nearly eight times as many residents, gets 10 votes.

Most states have a winner-take-all system, with the candidate that wins the largest number of votes claiming all of that state’s electoral college delegates. (Minor exceptions apply in Nebraska and Maine.)

These skews mean that it is possible in a tight race for one candidate to win the popular vote, but lose the presidency. It happened in 1876, 1888, and then not again for over a century until 2000. It could happen again in 2012.

Which way the popular vote will go in two weeks is anyone’s guess. The polls are in a statistical dead heat, and one candidate’s blunder or another’s good luck could still tip the polls one way or another.

But it will still be the electoral college that chooses the president. The Economist has been monitoring the polls state-by-state from across the Atlantic, and so far concludes as of Oct. 23 that Obama could count on 237 electoral votes, while Romney can count on 200.

The remaining 101 electoral votes that will determine which man gets the 270 he needs to be president could go either way.

Obama clearly has to win fewer of those electoral votes to win than Romney does, so the odds for the moment favour him continuing as president.

Even if he loses the popular vote.

If you thought U.S. politics has been a parade of the absurd over the past four years, just wait and see how bizarre things get if the president who attracts the conspiracy theorists and raging oddballs like no other modern First World leader wins the presidency while losing the popular vote.

And if things went the other way, with Obama winning the popular vote but Romney winning the electoral college and becoming president?

That would bring both the White House and Congress under Republican control, but there’s no reason to believe that Washington would be any less unruly, given the deep suspicion that virtually the entire Democratic caucus and the Tea Party wing of the Republican party — collectively a comfortable majority in Congress — hold of Romney.

Either way, the dysfunction goes on and on.

Somewhere along the way, U.S. politics took a deeply disturbing turn into permanent polarization. When countries do take such turns, they typically only return to moderation and pragmatism out of either exhaustion or trauma; occasionally through partition.

Hopefully, in America’s case, it will be through exhaustion rather that the other two possible outcomes.

The best hope for that will be to have whoever wins in two weeks — whether it be Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — do so with an unambiguous mandate.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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