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Sean Trende | How Likely Is an Electoral Vote/Popular Vote Split?

The possibility that Mitt Romney could win the popular vote while Barack Obama wins the vote in the Electoral College has been discussed throughout this campaign. In recent days, we’ve seen pieces from Nate Silver, Nate Cohn, Harry Enten and RCP’s Scott Conroy exploring the issue. Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina has even referenced the potential discrepancy, urging reporters to look at the state polls rather than the national surveys.

How likely is this, really? History suggests “not very,” unless the race is extremely close. This is because the Electoral College and the popular vote almost always line up reasonably well.

Take a look at the following chart.

It lists presidential races going back to 1952 (prior to 1952, the ensuing exercise is difficult to apply because of the “Solid South”). The second column lists the state from which the candidate who won the popular vote received his 270th electoral vote.

That’s a bit abstract, but think of it this way: In 2008, Barack Obama won Washington, D.C., by 86 percentage points, his largest margin of victory anywhere. That gave him his first three electoral votes. The next largest margin was in his home state of Hawaii, which he won by 45 points. That gave him four more electoral votes, for a total of seven.


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