9.3.1 MYTH: “Wrong winner” elections are rare, and therefore not a problem.
- Far from being rare, there have been four elections out of the nation’s 57 presidential elections in which a candidate has won the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide—a failure rate of 1 in 14.
- The failure rate is 1 in 7 among non-landslide presidential elections (i.e., elections where the nationwide margin is less than 10%).
- The country has experienced a string of seven consecutive non-landslide elections since 1988. Because we appear to be in an era of non-landslide presidential elections, additional “wrong winner” elections can be expected in the future.
There have been four “wrong winner” elections out of the nation’s 57 presidential elections between 1789 and 2012—a failure rate of 1 in 14.
Moreover, about half of American presidential elections are popular-vote landslides (i.e., those in which the winner’s nationwide margin is greater than 10%). Among the non-landslide elections, the failure rate for the current system is 1 in 7.
Although landslide presidential elections were common for much of the 20th century, the nation currently appears to be in an era of consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012).
Therefore, it should not be surprising that there has been one “wrong winner” election in the recent string of seven non-landslide presidential elections between 1988 and 2012.
If the country continues to experience non-landslide presidential elections, we can expect additional “wrong winner” elections in the future.
An article on July 24, 2012, by Nate Silver in the New York Times, entitled “State and National Polls Tell Different Tales About State of Campaign” makes the point that the national popular vote often disagrees with the candidates’ status in the closely divided battleground states. The article pointed out that President Obama had a nationwide lead of 1.3% in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls at the time. However, at the same moment, Obama led by a mean of 3.5% in the Real Clear Politics averages for 10 battleground states (Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin) that were considered (at the time) to be most likely to determine the outcome of the 2012 election. Thus, on July 24 (when both party’s nominees were known), the Republicans were within 1.3% of winning the national popular vote, but considerably farther away from winning the states necessary to elect Mitt Romney as President. See tables 9.42 and 9.43 in section 9.31.9 for additional discussion.
In an October 31, 2012, article in the New York Times, Nate Silver observed:
“Mitt Romney and President Obama remain roughly tied in national polls, while state polls are suggestive of a lead for Mr. Obama in the Electoral College.”
The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is further highlighted by the fact that a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in five of the 13 presidential elections since World War II.
For example, in 1976, Jimmy Carter led Gerald Ford by 1,682,970 votes nationwide; however, a shift of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio would have elected Ford.
In 2004, President George W. Bush was ahead by over 3,000,000 popular votes nationwide on Election Night; however, the outcome of the election remained in doubt until the next day because it was not clear which candidate would win Ohio’s 20 electoral votes. In the end, Bush received 118,785 more popular votes than John Kerry in Ohio—thus winning all of Ohio’s 20 electoral votes and ensuring his re-election. However, if 59,393 voters in Ohio had switched from Bush to Kerry, Kerry would have become President despite Bush’s lead of over 3,000,000 popular votes nationwide.
In 2012, a shift of 214,390 popular votes in four states would have elected Mitt Romney, despite President Obama’s nationwide lead of 4,966,945 votes. The four states involved are Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4), and Virginia (13). They cumulatively possess 64 electoral votes. A shift of 64 electoral votes would have given Mitt Romney the 270 electoral votes needed for election.
Other examples are presented in section 1.2.2.
 Silver, Nate. State and national polls tell different tales about state of campaign. FiveThirtyEight column in New York Times. July 24, 2012.
 Silver, Nate. What polls suggest about the national popular vote. FiveThirtyEight column in New York Times. October 31, 2012.