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Predicting the Meaning of the Election and the Electoral College

James Ceaser, perhaps our most distinguished student of American politics on the conservative side, isn’t about predicting the outcome of elections.  That’s actually hard to do. And those political scientists who predict outcomes correctly well in advance are almost always just lucky.  This election, all the evidence suggests, is going to be very close and has some unprecedented features (to begin with the obvious, an African American running for re-election and a Mormon).  So we have every reason to distrust confident outcome predictions even more than usual.

Ceaser, instead, imagines all the plausible outcomes and then predicts the meaning that will be given to each of them.  That’s a lot easier to do.  Predicting meanings, of course, requires not mainly excellence in statistical methods but in analysis of American opinion. Ceaser is the best of our “dialectical” political scientists.

Here are Ceaser’s four possible scenarios of meaning for the outcome of the 2012 presidential election:

1. The larger Obama victory, which can be called “Vindication,” refers to a result in which the president wins by a margin of some 3 percentage points or more, in which the Democrats gain more than 12 seats in the House, and in which the Democrats, while losing a seat or two in the Senate, retain control of that body.

2. A narrower Obama victory, labeled “Hanging On,” describes a scenario in which the president ekes out a win by under a point and perhaps captures an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, maybe even by a considerable margin. (This result is what many polls suggest would be the outcome if the election were held today.) Democrats pick up only a few seats in the House, under 10, while Republicans gain a tie in the Senate or, against all odds, capture a majority.

3. A narrower Romney win, “Reversal,” describes a victory margin of under 2 points, a modest loss of 6 to 10 seats for the GOP in the House, and a gain of a couple Senate seats, still leaving Republicans short of a tie or an outright majority.

4. A larger Romney victory, called “Game Change,” designates a scenario in which President Romney is elected by a significant margin, 3 percentage points or more, where Republicans suffer minimal losses in the House, and where the GOP captures the Senate (which, in the case of a Romney victory, requires only a tie). This result will also bring some real surprises, including victories in states that few expected and upset wins in some of the Senate contests. To put a cherry on top, the GOP could pick up a net three or four governorships.

Vindication, as I’ve been saying for a while, is the least likely outcome.  This will be no 1936, with the voters ratifying a new birth of progressive reform or the president’s progressive values.  Progressives say, of course, that’s because the president hasn’t been progressive enough.  Conservatives say that the president didn’t really have a progressive mandate in 2008, and so he overreached with the unpopular “ObamaCare” and the unfocused yet ideological stimulus.  

The evidence we do have is that the president’s job approval has dropped below 50%, and people now trust Romney on the economy more than him.

If the president “hangs on,” it will be because just enough voters found Romney an unacceptable alternative.  What makes his hanging on more difficult lately, of course, Romney’s solid debate performance convinced a small but noticeable number of voters that he is, after all, likely to be a competent leader.

What if the president loses the popular vote but slides by in the so-called “electoral college?”  A good number of Democratic analysts have been reduced reassuring their faithful that Romney is very likely to lose in the electoral vote, even if wins, as now seems somewhat likely, the popular vote.  That scenario is the reason that most speculators still think the odds are on the president’s side, even as the polls show Romney narrowly but clearly ahead nationwide.

One of the main contributions the electoral college makes to the energetic presidency intended by our Framers is that it tends to exaggerate the mandate the voters have given to the person elected.  Obama won by an electoral college landslide in 2008, but his popular vote margin was somewhat short of landslide level.

One of the strongest arguments for abolishing the electoral college is that a president who wins in the absence of a popular mandate might be too weak to be effective.  We forget that President George W. Bush was beginning to look that way prior to 9/11—a crisis that was a source of energy and produced “rallying around” presidential popularity.

We have no experience of a president winning re-election without that popular mandate.  So I wish Ceaser had speculated some on the meaning that might flow from Obama winning a constitutional—but not a popular—mandate for another term.

We might begin with the irony that the Democratic-dominated mainstream media might find wisdom in the Framers not choosing a more purely democratic means of choosing our chief executive.  We might add that conservatives would, of course, start to attack the electoral college’s undemocratic biases.

We could also start to speculate how President Obama would govern with the opposite of a progressive mandate and a hostile House of Representatives. Liberals, of course, would start to rediscover the constitutional—as opposed to popular—foundation of presidential power.

I could go on to talk about the other scenarios, and I’m not really predicting how or even that the “hanging on” scenario will actually play out.  I’m as clueless as the next guy about whether Obama or Romney will win.


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