Will This Election Be as Exciting as That Other Election?

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As polls remain tight and the election draws closer, reporters are engaging in their favorite form of back-scratching by imagining the most news-worthy of outcomes: an election so close, a winner can’t be determined. Or even more drool-inducing, an electoral college tie. The most recent example locally is Glen Johnson’s Globe piece, headlined “Winner of popular vote may be denied presidency.” You can find dozens of other articles this week posing questions like, “Could the Bush-Gore mess happen again?” “Will the winner of the popular vote lose the electoral college?” “Will this election result in an electoral college tie?”

Let’s make this easy for you: the answer to all of these questions is always “yes,” because a tie is always theoretically possible! One could plausibly run the headline “Electoral college may result in a tie” at literally any date. In fact, reporters have been running these stories for months. Here’s one from The Guardian in May. Here’s one from Yahoo in June.

Fine, you might say. Those older articles were premature, but at this point, the speculation is merited! Obama seems to be polling ahead of Romney in key swing states, even as Romney seems to be polling ahead of Obama nationally. This basically guarantees Romney will win the popular vote but lose the election. (Wrong.)

But lest you think this is a phenomenon specific to this election and these polls, note that in fact, it’s been a perennial obsession of the political press in every election since the most momentous of modern elections actually did take place in 2000, when Bush defeated Gore in the electoral college (according to the Supreme Court) despite Gore’s lead in the national popular vote.

In 2004, a Washington Post story began, “Could one of these electoral college nightmares be our destiny?” Spoiler: Yes it totally could! Double spoiler: It wasn’t. Bush won both the popular and electoral vote.

In 2008, Reuters ran with “McCain-Obama tie possible in presidential race.” This was factually true, but of course, not very likely, as Obama defeated McCain pretty decisively.

Each of these articles fills itself out by looking at the specific odds of the various hypotheticals, taken at whatever time the article runs, and often they admit that the odds are fairly small. This week, polls suggest that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are very close in polls. But even with the likelihood of a split between the electoral vote and the popular vote much higher than it was in say 2008, most of these stories note that it’s still not very high. If you must put a number on it, Nate Silver at the New York Times‘s Five Thirty Eight puts the odds of a popular/electoral disagreement at 7 percent. Odds of a 269-269 tie are even smaller. Johnson’s Globe piece calls a tie “remotely possible.” A Post story this week examining the repercussions of a hypothetical tie admits that “It’s still very unlikely that such a thing would happen.”

Still it’s not hard to imagine why a reporter might want to indulge in a little hypothetical fantasy. Bush vs. Gore was a monumental event, just from a news-maker’s perspective. For weeks, America sat captive to reports about recounts, hanging chads and court rulings. While conservatives might suspect that it is a political reporter’s fervent wish that Obama win in a landslide, let the record show that the far more fervent wish is for the election to be interesting, for people to crave a political reporter’s knowledge and expertise. And let’s admit out that an election decided by the House of Representatives that puts Romney and Biden in office together would be just … incredibly entertaining.

This is why headlines like “Will the Winner of the Popular Vote Lose the Election?” can almost always be paraphrased as, “Will This Election Be As Exciting As that Other Election?” with the subhead “Probably not. But let’s fantasize!”