Marc Ambinder outlines a scenario in which Barack Obama could win the popular vote while losing (legitimately) the electoral vote. Basically, the scenario rests on the assumption that Obama will turn out legions of new voters in safe Republican states like Mississippi and Texas, but not enough to swing such states. Thus he will build his national total without augmenting his electoral votes. (Meanwhile, presumably he will win the safe Democratic states by larger margins than Gore or Kerry did, which has the same effect on the outcome.)
I do not find the scenario plausible, even if it is theoretically quite possible. I find it implausible for two reasons. First of all, if there is any partisan bias in the electoral college over recent cycles, it is not clear to me that said bias does not favor the Democratic party. It is easy to forget, but in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the “Democratic lock” on the electoral college. The lesson of a stolen swing-state outcome and judicial coup d’etat in 2000, followed by an extremely narrow squeaker in 2004 (that was very close to a reversal in favor of the Democrat) should be a lesson in how fundamentally hard it is for the Republican to overcome that lock, rather than a lesson in how likely the Democrats are to fail to win electoral college majorities. Thus, if either candidate is more likely to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college in a close race, it is McCain. Quick: really, which states won by either Kerry or Gore do you think McCain is going to pick off? No, really? ((Nate’s simulations agree that a reversal favoring Obama is somewhat more likely than a reversal favoring McCain. He also notes that part of the reason is that while population shifts favor Republican-leaning states, the electoral college apportionment for 2008 is based in the 2000 census. Thus, Nate reasons, McCain will suffer from malapportionment that will cost him around 5 electoral votes. My “favors Democrats” (I would not say “lock”) argument does not depend on the lag in apportionment; rather, it stems from the tendency of larger states to be somewhat more likely to be Democratic leaning because they are more urban. That favors a Democratic candidate in the electoral college in a close race.))
That the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 saw a reversal against it as more likely than one favoring their ticket seemed to me likely at the time from their strategic behavior late in the campaign. They were on the air in California, a state they had no chance to win, but where a higher Republican turnout would increase their chances of winning the popular vote even if (as expected) Gore-Lieberman ran the table on the relatively large swing states, including Florida. ((It was also plausible, given that Ralph Nader was expected to win more than the paltry 2.7% of the vote that he did win nationally. Of course, much more and he might have “spoiled” Oregon and Wisconsin. The point simply is that Gore, late in the campaign, was moving into pretty good position in the electoral college, even as the popular vote remained tight. See the discussion and my comment at Brendan Nyhan.))
Ambinder suggests that the Democratic party and the public might not take a reversal against the Democrats so passively as in 2000 if it happened again. ((Even if it happened legitimately, as his scenario outlines.)) He asks, “can the two-party system sustain another disparity?” I would most certainly hope not!
But there is a more fundamental reason why I do not find plausible Ambinder’s scenario. I do not find the scenario plausible for a very simple reason: I think Barack Obama is likely to win at least 53% of the two-candidate vote. ((No simulations, no models. Just a gut feeling. Check back later.)) That will produce, if not quite the blowout that a large popular-vote margin would produce in the past, a resounding win in the electoral college.