CBS News and YouGov have a model up that looks at the interactions between the popular and electoral votes under what seem to be the three most likely scenarios: a slight popular-vote edge for Romney, a slight popular-vote edge for Obama, and a popular-vote “tie.” This last obviously gets scare quotes because, one hopes, the architects of the model do not in fact assume that it’s anything more than academically possible for an electorate that will number around 120 million Dicks and Janes to split perfectly down the middle. Instead, think of the tie scenario as setting the betting line for the outcome of the election, like an over-under or a point spread.
The bad news for Republicans and conservatives is that the model shows President Obama wins in the event of a “push.” To be more specific, the model shows that 65 percent of the time in a popular-vote “tie” scenario, President Obama takes the Electoral College and with it the White House. But it gets worse for Romney: Even in a scenario where he wins the national popular vote by a full percentage point, he wins the Electoral College only 52 percent of the time. What’s that you say? You beat Barack by a million votes, did you? So will you be packing for D.C. or Southern California? Let’s flip a coin.
Now, in an election season crammed with more flashy models than the new Bond flick, YouGov is hardly the first and last word. In fact, a lot of the 375,000 interviews that serve as its raw data seem to have been conducted before the first debate and the seismic polling shift in Romney’s favor. But the model nevertheless captures something sticky in the race’s dynamics: Romney has been able to close on, and eventually pass, President Obama in national tracking. But he has not yet been able to reproduce the trick in just those states he’ll need to win to put him at 270 electoral votes. Don’t look now, but as of today, the Real Clear Politics polling average has Romney holding on to a one-point lead nationally, and the site’s electoral map shows him for the first time surpassing the president in locked-up and leaning electoral votes, 206 to 201. But it also generously considers places like Michigan and Pennsylvania to be “toss-ups,” which, well, I’ll believe when I see.
So suppose Romney wins the popular vote, and even wins it by enough that the margin can’t be niggled away by the plague of Democratic lawyers sure to croak their way across the continent like so many Old Testament frogs. But suppose as well that, despite running up the score in, say, Florida, Romney comes up short in, say, Ohio? (Actually, don’t just say Ohio. It’ll be Ohio if it’s anywhere.) What then? You’ll recall the stories about Team Dubya having talking points prepared for what they then thought was the significant possibility that Bush would win the popular vote but lose the presidency in 2000. In the event that this fate befalls Romney, some partisan Republicans — and no doubt a good number of conservatives more broadly — will be tempted, from epiphany or expediency, to revise their opinion of the Electoral College. But that would be a catastrophic mistake, both for conservatism and for the republic.
Though readers on the right will no doubt be familiar with the arguments in favor of the College (indeed, they are likely to be just about the only statistically significant demographic in the country familiar with such arguments), they bear summation. In short, the College reflects the formal and constitutional fact that the president is elected chief executive of a union of states — federated but sovereign — and not a glomeration of people. The executive of the Constitution, of the Founders, is president of the United States, not president of America. Its detractors consider it an anachronism, but if federalism still means anything — and sadly, that’s something of an open question — then the College is as vital as ever. It affirms that we vote as citizens of the several states, not mere residents of arbitrarily drawn administrative districts.