As of Monday morning, the polls suggest that Barack Obama will have a substantial margin in the popular vote. How come? Much of the commentary will focus on the candidates’ speeches, positions, ads, debate performances, and running mates. On the loser’s side, we shall hear many variations on “If only they’d listened to me!” Much of this carping (which has already started) will come from two sources. The first will be high-level consultants seeking to salvage their own reputations so that they can get work in the future. The second will be low-level aides and peripheral advisers who have conned reporters into regarding them as “strategists.”
Some of the commentary will have a factual basis. Obama’s team ran a brilliant campaign. McCain made mistakes (e.g., taking Reverend Wright out of the discussion). In the end, though, all of these tactical points were far less important than the campaign’s setting: an unpopular president, a protracted war, and a worsening economy. Bad business news has always been bad for the incumbent party’s candidate. In 1960, Arthur Burns, former chair of the Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers, had foreseen an autumn downturn in the economy. Nixon wrote in Six Crises:
Unfortunately, Arthur Burns turned out to be a good prophet. The bottom of the 1960 dip did come in October and the economy started to move up again in November– after it was too late to affect the election returns. In October, usually a month of rising employment, the jobless rolls increased by 452,000. All the speeches, television broadcasts, and precinct work in the world could not counteract that one hard fact.
McCain’s one remaining hope — a faint one — is that he can surge in some key states and win a bare majority in the electoral college even while losing the popular vote. Again, the Old Man’s career offers a good lesson, showing that the electoral college can take some odd bounces. As political scientist Brian Gaines has explained, Nixon actually won the popular vote in 1960. In crediting JFK with a popular plurality, most accounts assign him 324,050 votes from Alabama. But his name was not on the ballot in the state: instead, voters saw the names of would-be electors. Five Democratic electors were for Kennedy and six had publicly promised to vote for Virginia’s Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist. If we assign popular votes accordingly, Kennedy’s Alabama total drops by more than 170,000. Whereas the “accepted” version gives Kennedy a margin of about 120,000 votes nationwide, this method gives Nixon a plurality of more than 50,000.