Why Hurricane Sandy might cost Obama the popular vote—but not the presidency

This year’s black swan arrived on a rush of wind.

Once again, a highly unlikely, unanticipated event has roiled the waters—literally—late in the campaign cycle. Twelve years ago, it was the revelation of George W. Bush’s long-ago drunk driving arrest that likely cost him the popular vote and almost cost him the White House. Four years ago, the September collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-collapse of the global financial universe turned a likely Obama victory into a certain one.

And this year, the impact of Hurricane Sandy makes it more likely that we’ll see a presidential election where the winner winds up winning fewer votes than the loser.

Even before Sandy struck the East Coast Monday, an observation was gaining hurricane force: What if Sandy had struck a week later? What if, on Election Day, tens of millions were without power, with mass transit shut, roads flooded, polling stations shut or inaccessible? Would states or the federal government postpone the voting?

Well, we don’t have to turn to “what-if” questions (much as I enjoy them). The storm will likely have a measurable impact on next Tuesday’s voting.

In the past, we’ve seen less powerful storms knock out power for well over a week. Flooding has already taken place on a massive scale, meaning that property owners across the East, and hundreds of miles inland, will be coping with water in their cellars, living rooms, stores and offices. There are schools that may still be closed. This means there’s a very good chance that voters—maybe hundreds of thousands of them—will be coping with urgent, personal affairs, and the trip to the polls may simply be one burden too many.

Now consider where these voters are: overwhelmingly, they’re in states where Obama is all but certain to win, and with huge pluralities. (The latest poll out of New York gives the President a 61-35 advantage over Mitt Romney, which translates to a 2-million-vote plurality.)

This enormous lead, combined with the post-storm burdens, suggests that there’s markedly less incentive than usual for Obama voters in deep-blue states to vote.

The likely result? An increased chance that Obama will lose the national popular vote to Romney, and thus an increased chance that we’ll see, as we did in 2000, a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College tally that in fact decides the presidency.

Should Obama win the election this way, it would be historic: We’ve never had an incumbent president returned to office while losing the popular vote. (Gerald Ford came close; despite losing the popular vote by 1.7 million votes, a shift of barely 11,000 votes in Ohio and Hawaii would have kept him in the White House).

More significant, it would rekindle the argument over the Electoral College that arose—briefly—in 2000: Is this 200-year old mechanism, with an overtly anti-democratic tilt (small states have disproportionately more clout than big states), the right way to choose a president?

After immersing myself in the mysteries of the Electoral College for a novel I wrote in the ’90s, I came away believing that the case for scrapping it is less obvious than I originally thought.

For one thing, losing the popular vote is not necessarily a sign of what “the people” really wanted. Candidates structure their campaigns around the Electoral College; had 2000 been a popular vote election, George W. Bush would have spent more time running up the vote in Texas and California’s inland empire, while Al Gore would have been campaigning in Dallas and Atlanta.

For another, the chaos that enveloped Florida back in 2000 might extend to every state if the popular vote was as close as it was in 1960, 1968, and 2000 (and as it may well be this time). Instead of lawyers and operatives descending on Florida, they might be loaded onto C-130s and parachuted into every state where disputes arose.

I grant you, this inquiry is speculative. It still may be that in the last week of the election, there will be a decisive shift in the electorate that turns a nail-biter into a clear victory. It may be that Sandy is not the Black Swan that will shape the outcome.

But what this storm has done is to raise the possibility of a different kind of storm—a political one—descending on us next week.