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Could Romney Win But Lose?

Every four years, my friends from outside the United States ask me about the weirdness of American presidential elections. How could George Bush get fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and yet win the election? (My namesake, Grover Cleveland, did it too).

The answer is that we treat elections like boxing matches (in more ways than one). Who wins a boxing match? Whoever wins the most rounds. Let’s say it’s Joe versus Bob for three rounds. Joe hits Bob 27 times in the first round while Bob responds weakly with only 10 hits. Joe wins the round. In the second round, Bob hits Joe 8 times and Joe responds with only 7 punches. Bob wins the round. In the third round, Bob strikes 9 times; Joe only 5. Bob wins the round. So, who wins the match? Even though Joe has hit Bob 39 times and Bob has hit Joe only 27 times, Bob wins the match. He’s won two of the three rounds. Lenox Lewis famously lost a title match about a dozen years ago in exactly this fashion.

Our presidential election functions essentially the same way. It’s not one national election but, rather, 50 state elections (weighted by population). Why? Because the states existed before the nation and they jealously guard their privileges.

I’m starting to believe that Mitt Romney could be the next Al Gore, winning the popular vote but losing the election. The red states seem to support Romney by a wide margin. Conversely, the blue states seem to support Obama by a narrow margin. In general, the blue states are more densely populated than the red states. Indeed, this is shaping up to be an urban versus rural election. That also means that Obama could win the blue states by a narrow margin and lose the red states by a wide margin. If the math works out right (or wrong), Obama could very well win the Electoral College, while losing the popular vote. The whole election seems to come down to two states: Ohio and Colorado.

There are still 11 days left until the election — that’s long time in politics. It’s interesting to speculate but anything could happen. However, if Obama loses but wins, remember that you heard it here first.

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