Obama, Romney, and the Electoral College: The Beltway's One-Sided Hand-Wringing, Just Like 2000
It's deja vu all over again.
Thanks to a spate of polls indicating that the presidential race is tightening, the prospect of a repeat of the results of the 2000 election -- with one candidate winning the Electoral College and the other one the popular vote -- has the folks inside the Beltway all in a tizzy of speculation. And wouldn't you know it, the shape of that speculation is just as absurdly biased as it was in 2000.
Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post is the classic Beltway poobah, and her piece this weekend was a classic of Beltway poobahism:
That kind of split decision between the electorate and the electoral college would mark the fifth time in American history — and the second time in a dozen years — that the person who occupies the White House was not the one who got the most votes on Election Day.
No incumbent president seeking a second term has ever won the electoral college and lost the popular vote.
Every modern president to be reelected — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — has gotten a bigger share of the vote in their second bid for office than their first, and with it, a chance to claim a mandate. (Though Clinton got more votes than his first race and won in the electoral college, he was re-elected in 1996 without winning a majority in a three-way race against Republican Bob Dole and independent Ross Perot.)
A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern.
Even more absurdly, Tumulty then goes on to cite the Bush administration that followed in the wake of the 2000 travesty as somehow laboring under this "shadow" -- even though, in real time, the WaPo and every other outlet of Beltway punditry studiously ignored that "shadow" for the entirety of Bush's tenure, beginning with the outrageous failure to cover the massive protests that accompanied his inauguration.
Perhaps more importantly, the Bush administration did not even bother to appear constrained by this "shadow" for the entirety of its tenure. As a skeptical Josh Marshall observed:
This happened no more than twelve years ago for the first time in a century. Democrats were crushed and outraged. And in response to various suggestions that newly-inaugurated President George W. Bush would need to govern in a form of national unity government Bush responded by pursuing one of the most maximalist and aggressive agendas in recent American history.
The difference between a non-incumbent and an incumbent winning this way is no more than some sort of pseudo-fact. It quite simply is what it is. And having been perfectly happy with it twelve years ago Republicans would have no grounds for complaining now.
Now, would they have grounds to be upset? Sure. Would this lead to “more hyperpartisanship”? Please. No greater ‘hyperpartisanship’ is possible than the scorched earth, 100% ‘No’ policy we’ve seen over the last four years, which frankly is little different from the scorched earth, 100% ‘No’ policy of 1993-2001. Remember, Bill Clinton was illegitimate because he was a plurality not a majority president.
Nonetheless, we can rest assured that should there be a electoral-popular vote split favoring Obama, as Cenk Uygur says, Republican heads will be exploding all over the place. Or at least they'll be twisting themselves into knots trying to figure out how to attack the president as illegitimate.
This is especially so if you recall the shape of the pre-electoral speculation in 2000, when it appeared, in the days leading up to the election, possible that Al Gore would win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. This set off howls of outrage from right-wing media folk such as Fox News and the Washington Times, which were then dutifully reflected in the hand-wringing from the Beltway pundits.
Recall, for instance, the Moonie Times report on the subject:
Vice President Al Gore's strategy to go after states rich with electoral votes raises a remote possibility that has not occurred in presidential politics since 1888.
There is a chance he could capture 270 electoral votes and win the presidency even if he loses the popular vote to Texas Gov. George W. Bush....
Mrs. Jeffe, the analyst from California...says a split decision between the popular vote and the electoral vote would make it hard for the next president to lead.
A presidential election "is about credibility — it's about legitimacy," she said. "It's not about words on paper."
Of course, these concerns vanished from the pages of the Times once the results came in.
Likewise, the New York Daily News reported that the Bush team was planning to hit the ground running with attacks on Al Gore as an illegitimate president if he won the EC but not the popular vote:
They're not only thinking the unthinkable, they're planning for it.
Quietly, some of George W. Bush's advisers are preparing for the ultimate "what if" scenario: What happens if Bush wins the popular vote for President, but loses the White House because Al Gore's won the majority of electoral votes?...
"The one thing we don't do is roll over," says a Bush aide. "We fight."
How? The core of the emerging Bush strategy assumes a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course.
In league with the campaign — which is preparing talking points about the Electoral College's essential unfairness — a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged. "We'd have ads, too," says a Bush aide, "and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted."
Local business leaders will be urged to lobby their customers, the clergy will be asked to speak up for the popular will and Team Bush will enlist as many Democrats as possible to scream as loud as they can. "You think 'Democrats for Democracy' would be a catchy term for them?" asks a Bush adviser....
And what would happen if the "what if" scenario came out the other way? "Then we'd be doing the same thing Bush is apparently getting ready for," says a Gore campaign official. "They're just further along in their contingency thinking than we are. But we wouldn't lie down without a fight, either."
And then there was Chris Matthews. This was his column the day before the election:
Al Gore, knowing him as we do, may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush. He's lost popularity contests before. But how will the country take it?
How will a populace already turned off to politics react to the news that the guy who's gotten the most votes isn't getting the job?
Matthews, of course, voiced no such concerns after the election. Because that would have entailed greater self-examination than is ever permitted inside the Beltway.
These people are never, ever, ever right. Considering their record, it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that Obama wins the popular vote but not the EC. But then, no one from inside the Beltway will bother -- or dare -- suggesting to Mitt Romney that he's not a legitimate president.
As Steve Kornacki at Salon puts it:
Of course, that obstruction will probably persist even if Obama wins the popular vote. If modern political history has taught us anything, it’s that the Republican base doesn’t believe any Democratic victory is legitimate, and always finds a way to treat a Democratic president as a usurper. A favorite GOP talking point during Bill Clinton’s first term was that he’d only been elected by 43 percent of the country. The implication was that Clinton wouldn’t have won in 1992 without the presence of independent Ross Perot – a complete and total misreading of the ’92 election. In his first two years as president, Clinton faced the same unanimous opposition that Obama has dealt with. And even when Clinton was reelected in 1996, Republicans delighted in pointing out that he’d done so without breaking 50 percent of the national popular vote (even though their own candidate barely cracked 40). Or consider Obama’s ’08 victory, won with a higher share of the popular vote by any Democrat since LBJ. It meant little to the right, which fixated on trumped-up claims of mass voter fraud.