The 2012 presidential election looks like it could well be another squeaker, and if it is, a number of possible outcomes could produce national hand-wringing, finger-pointing, complaints of unfairness and anger, further dividing Americans and undermining confidence in our political system. A dozen years ago, Democrat Al Gore drew 540,000 votes more than Republican George W. Bush but lost the presidency when Bush carried Florida and won 271 electoral votes. There is no reason that couldn’t happen again, with President Barack Obama winning a narrow popular vote victory and losing in the Electoral College. Most of the same states are in play as were in 2000, and any close popular vote outcome raises the possibility of a split decision, especially because Obama is likely to “waste” large numbers of votes in carrying a handful of populous states. In 2000, six states delivered a plurality of at least 500,000 votes to one of the major party nominees. Five of those states — New York, California, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey — went for Gore, while only one, Texas, went for Bush. Bush carried 30 states that year, while Gore won 20 states and the District of Columbia. Eight years later, in a relative blowout, 10 states delivered pluralities of at least 500,000 votes for one of the nominees. Obama won nine of those states (the five above plus Michigan, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington), while Texas gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a huge win. McCain won only 22 states that year to Obama’s 28 (plus D.C.), though the Democrat also won one of Nebraska’s electoral votes by carrying the state’s 2nd district.
Even assuming that Obama’s large 9.5 million vote majority will be erased almost completely this time, he is still likely to “over perform” in the most populous states, again “wasting” votes in his quest to 270 electoral votes. If you start to feel dread at the thought of the fallout from the unlikely popular vote/electoral vote scenario, here is another unlikely scenario that would boost cable viewing but further tear apart the country: Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney tie at 269 delegates, throwing the contest to the House. Bush’s 271-267 victory in 2000 (in fact, Gore drew 266 electoral votes because one D.C. elector abstained) would translate into a 278-260 advantage for Bush after the latest round of reapportionment following the 2010 census.