The chances are slim, but it’s possible that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump could win the popular vote nationwide but lose the electoral college vote and the presidency.
That’s because the election is not decided by the nationwide popular vote. It’s decided by electoral votes, with all of the votes for most states awarded to the winner of the popular vote in that state.
That happened 16 years ago in the disputed contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Gore, the vice president at the time, won the popular vote, edging out Bush nationwide by about 550,000 votes. But he came up five electoral votes short of the 270 needed. Bush won the presidency.
“I think that’s probably less likely,” Republican pollster David Winston, said of a replay this year of 2000. “I think you’re unlikely to see it unless it’s just really razor-close.”
The polls say Clinton leads nationally. But they remain close, some within the margin of error. The Real Clear Politics average of surveys over the past week give her a 3-point lead. An Investors Business Daily poll shows Trump ahead by 1 point.
The gap between the electoral vote counts and the popular vote can be misleading. President Barack Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by 4 percentage points, but that translated into a 126-electoral vote victory.
Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project, an educational group that provides election data and research, said Clinton was better-positioned than Trump to win the popular vote as well as the electoral vote.
In the unlikely event of a split, he thinks Trump would carry the electoral vote and Clinton would lead the popular vote because of the expected high turnout of Hispanic voters in states like Texas, California and others that will vote Democratic.
For example, Clinton could get a much larger number of votes than Democrats usually get in a state such as Texas while still narrowly losing it and its Electoral College votes. That could help her carry the popular vote nationwide while not adding any electoral votes to her side.
Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight.com suggested a week ago that if there were a popular-electoral split it would favor Trump, because at the time Clinton was not doing as well in swing states as Obama did four years ago.
Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Gore’s 2000 campaign, said political demographics that would contribute to the outcome Tuesday were different now than they were 16 years ago, making a split unlikely.
“Back in 2000, these demographics were not truly geographically reflected,” he said. “There was not a sizable Latino vote in a Virginia or North Carolina. The Latino vote was not so decisive in terms of the spread and the turnout was smaller. Millennials were not close to 30 percent of the overall vote,.”
Lehane also said white college-educated voters were now a much larger portion of the vote than in 2000, when they were more concentrated in the traditional blue states. And the gender gap was not the factor then that it is in the 2016 contest.
The prospect of a disputed count is enough to give shudders to those who remember the aftermath of the 2000 contest. It was not pretty. Flash-forward to 2016: Trump has already conditioned many of his more impassioned supporters to believe that if he loses, the election was “rigged.”
So the Russian hacking of campaign emails, the fat-shaming of Miss Universe, the Republican nominee’s lewd sexual boasting and the FBI’s eleventh-hour starring role could end up being warm-up acts if the outcome on Election Day is a split decision.
This version corrects to say the election is decided by electoral votes, with all of the votes for most states awarded to the winner of the popular vote in that state.