The Signal

Romney could win the popular vote and lose the election

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2012, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks while President Barack Obama listens during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. When it comes to debates, Mitt Romney loves the rules. The eyes of millions of voters upon him, the Republican candidate is quick to poke holes in his rival's arguments. But he's just as ready to take the moderator to task when he believes the predetermined ground rules have been breached. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
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FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2012, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks while President Barack Obama listens during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. When it comes to debates, Mitt Romney loves the rules. The eyes of millions of voters upon him, the Republican candidate is quick to poke holes in his rival's arguments. But he's just as ready to take the moderator to task when he believes the predetermined ground rules have been breached. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

For Democrats still stinging from the 2000 election—that is to say, any Democrat born before about 1985—2012 could be the year of retribution. There is a distinct possibility that former Gov. Mitt Romney could win the popular vote and still lose the election to President Barack Obama.

In roughly 45 clinical trials, American democracy has produced four presidents who did not win the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000. (There have been 56 presidential elections, but popular vote data doesn't exist for the first 10 or so.) The Food and Drug Administration would soundly reject a drug that caused some horrible disfigurement upward of 10 percent of the time, but Americans appear to tolerate a constitution that rewards the overall loser this often. Consensus on the subject is difficult to build. Even though a majority of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College, the present system only punishes one side or the other in a given year.

National polls swung dramatically in Romney's direction after he trounced Obama in the first debate. The odds that Obama will secure re-election under the Signal's model dipped in tandem, but never below about 60 percent. The reason is so familiar that the O, H, and I keys on my keyboards are wearing thin.

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Sources: Betfair, Intrade, IEM, HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics

To be clear, we don't necessarily think Romney will win the popular vote. Standing in national polls does not predict actual vote share, and those polls are swinging back in the president's favor. Romney's odds of winning a majority of the ballots, however, are higher than his odds of winning at least 270 electoral votes. This year, the Electoral College unfairly favors Obama: Romney must carry Florida, Virginia and Ohio, while Obama needs only one of them.

The latest Gallup tracking poll of likely national voters has Romney up by 7 points. A lot of virtual ink has been spilled on how and why Gallup's poll has become an outlier: I suggest Alan Abramowitz, Mark Blumenthal or Nate Silver on the subject. The more meaningful aggregations of polls at Pollster and RealClearPolitics both report a statistical tie between Obama and Romney in the national polls.

Of the three states Romney needs to win, Florida (80.0 percent likely for Romney) and Virginia (61.9 percent likely for Romney) are leaning in his favor. Ohio has stubbornly remained in Obama's camp, with a 65.0 percent chance of going to Democrats. Obama held firm in the state after his Oct. 3 debate debacle, Ohio's economy is doing relatively well, and early voting is already under way, minimizing the impact of late-breaking events.

Let the pundits tie themselves into knots over the latest Gallup poll. As usual, what America wants is immaterial compared to the desires of the Buckeye State.

Follow the state-by-state and overall presidential predictions in real time with PredictWise.com.

David Rothschild has a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @DavMicRot.

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