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The Coming Popular Vote Nightmare

It’s 2:17 AM on Wednesday, November 7th and President Obama has won reelection with 294 electoral votes. Colorado is still too close to call. But the network anchors aren’t mulling the course of Obama’s second term because they can’t help but notice the national popular vote. Romney's ahead…by a lot.

It was easy to dismiss Romney’s lead in the popular vote when the West Coast states were still outstanding, even if his four-point lead seemed formidable. But most precincts in California are now reporting and the president is still underwater by more than one million votes. Analysts extrapolating the final results based on initial returns and the percentage of outstanding precincts calculate that Obama is unlikely to take the lead, igniting a firestorm undermining the legitimacy of an embattled president. And yet weeks later, President Obama takes the popular vote lead, and never relinquishes it.


This isn’t just a far-fetched scenario. If Obama ultimately wins the popular vote by a narrow margin, as suggested by the current average of national polls, Obama won’t lead the popular vote on Election Night and might not for weeks.

With the West Coast providing the margin of victory for any Democratic candidate in a close election, Republican presidential candidates outperform their eventual share of the popular vote until the West Coast reports its results. In 2008, California, Washington, and Oregon voted for Obama by a 4 million-vote margin, representing nearly half of his national popular vote victory.

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But the time zones are not alone in delaying results from Washington, Oregon, and California. In most eastern states, the overwhelming majority of votes are counted by the end of Election Night, since only a small share of absentee or overseas ballots arrive after the election. But elections in Washington and Oregon are now conducted entirely by mail and 41 percent of California voters voted by mail in 2008. In some states, ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day and it can take days before all of the votes arrive and weeks before they get counted, usually in modest batches once or twice a day.

Just for good measure, several big, blue cities in the East and Midwest don't always count 100 percent of their ballots on Election Night. Democrats also appear to gain from the provisional ballots counted across the rest of the country in the days following the election. Although the amount that Democrats gain from these ballots compared to the West Coast is unclear, the 2008 returns suggest that millions of votes were counted after Election Night throughout the eastern half of the country.

As a result, initial returns and derived estimates can significantly underestimate the final Democratic share of the popular vote. Even though Obama ultimately won 53.6 percent of the two party vote in 2008, Obama and McCain were still deadlocked at 50 percent when the networks projected Ohio for Obama. When the 11PM poll closings gave Obama his 270thelectoral vote, the new president-elect only held 51.5 percent of the two party vote, even though California had already tabulated and reported many of its early votes. By the time Katie Couric signed off from CBS News sometime after Indiana was called at 2:10 AM, Obama held 52.5 percent of the two party vote—a margin two points short of his eventual victory. 

Even by 5PM the next day, Obama only reached 53 percent of the two-party vote, one full point short of his final margin. How was that possible? Even though 22 hours elapsed since the polls closed in Indiana, approximately 10 million votes or 8 percent of total ballots hadn't been counted and Obama won them by a 61-38 margin.  This isn't a new phenomenon. In 2004, Bush led by 2.95 points as late as one week after the election, but the final results showed Bush ahead by 2.4 points, as the results of 5 million uncounted ballots shrunk Bush's lead in the national popular vote by 463,000 votes. 

Even worse, it won’t be easy to calculate how many votes remain:  the percentage of precincts reporting only roughly correlates with the unknown number of outstanding ballots. This is especially true in the states with extensive mail balloting. In California, for instance, the Associated Press correctly reported that 100 percent of precincts were reporting (not sure about the date), even though only 89 percent of the eventual number ballots were tabulated. Obama would win 65 percent of those ballots, expanding his margin of victory by an additional 420,000 votes. 

If Obama performs as strongly in California, Washington, and Oregon as he did in 2008, he could trail by several percentage points in the national popular vote while giving his victory or concession speech and ultimately seize the lead in the popular vote in the following days and weeks. Even a more middling performance out West, closer to Kerry's, would still allow him to make considerable gains. Unless Election Night ends with Obama holding a lead in the popular vote or Romney holding a large enough advantage to withstand the possibility of a predictably strong showing in late ballots, we may not know the winner of the popular vote for weeks.