We all remember that George W. Bush became president 12 years ago despite receiving 543,816 fewer votes than Al Gore. With an assist from the Supreme Court, Bush narrowly carried Florida, allowing him to eke out the narrowest of victories in the Electoral College, 271-267.
What we tend to forget, though, is that pre-election polls forecasted the exact opposite outcome. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, it was Bush who had led in the national horse race and Gore who’d held the edge in the three key swing states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
In the race’s closing days, Republicans began making noise about launching a pressure campaign to change the votes of electors if Gore were to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. “Bush set to fight Electoral College loss,” blared a Nov. 1, 2000, New York Daily News headline. The article quoted a Bush aide assuring that under such a scenario, “the one thing we won’t do is roll over. 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.
We’ll never know if this would have worked, or if the Bush team would have followed through with it. But it’s important to remember that 12 years ago there was no modern precedent for a split verdict. It hadn’t happened since 1888. How the public would react to the idea of a president taking office even though he received fewer votes than his opponent was unknown. It at least seemed possible there’d be such an outcry that it would make sense for the losing side to try to flip electors.
But there was no revolt. Sure, Democrats were happy to point out that Gore had been the people’s choice, but the post-election drama focused on Florida, and once that was resolved the popular vote issue was treated as an afterthought by both parties. To the extent Democrats questioned Bush’s legitimacy in the years ahead, it was his court-aided Florida victory they would mention – not his loss in the popular vote.
This story informs my guess of how Republicans will react if the national polls/Electoral College split we’re now seeing in polling holds up on Election Day. I don’t believe there would be any serious talk from GOP leaders about contesting the Electoral College vote, mostly because I don’t believe there would be a broad public outcry. 2000 set a modern precedent for this situation, training the media and political world to grant legitimacy to the Electoral College winner. At most, it would add new energy to the campaign to end the Electoral College, with Republicans moving away from the love of the system that they discovered 12 years ago. (Of course, Democrats might suddenly decide that they really like the system, after all …) But this would be a long-term story; it wouldn’t affect Obama’s victory.
That’s the good news for Obama. The bad news is that Republicans probably won’t behave as if he’d been legitimately reelected. The nature of his victory would become a constant talking point. The right would be able to easily convince itself that it had won the great argument of the last four years and that Americans had validated Republican resistance to Obama, who’d been saved only by a technicality. The same pressure to oppose Obama on everything, always, that has resulted in unprecedented obstruction by congressional Republicans would persist.
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.
Losing the popular vote is a headache Obama would obviously prefer to avoid, if for no other reason than the sake of his legacy. But from a practical standpoint, it really doesn’t matter how he wins. He’s not going to get much credit for it from the other side.