The Zombie Election

Four ways the campaign may be undead on November 7.

Written by John Heilemann

On Tuesday, October 23, precisely two weeks out from Election Day, ABC News and the Washington Post reported the second set of results from their homestretch tracking poll of 1,382 likely voters nationwide. The survey had Mitt Romney ahead of President Obama by 49 to 48 percent, a fashion-model-slender lead that, in fact, was even slimmer than those numbers suggested. (Pushing out two decimal places, the poll found Romney at 48.51 percent and Obama at 48.44.) And the ABC-WaPo tracker was no outlier. To the contrary. At this writing, on October 25, the RealClearPolitics national polling average gave Romney a 47.7 to 47.1 lead, and in all but one of the nine battleground states, the margin separating the two nominees was less than 3 percent.

Drilling down on the numbers at this late stage, a few conclusions are unavoidable. First, despite claims to the contrary by the Romney campaign, there is no massive wave of momentum carrying Mittens either nationally or in the battleground states—but the bump he received after the first debate elevated him sufficiently that he stands a plausible chance of winning this thing. Second, buoyed by his strong performances in the second and third debates, Obama’s position has stabilized and he holds a small but significant advantage in terms of the electoral map—but his sub-50 percent support levels in all of the battleground states is a cause for real concern among Democrats. All of which is to say, third and finally, that next Tuesday night is likely gonna be the emotional equivalent of riding the Cyclone at Coney Island: a nerve-­jangling, empty-out-the-liquor-­cabinet-and-stash-box sort of affair.

But here’s the thing: It could be even worse than that. At a moment when the bitter polarization that has poisoned our politics for so long has reached a new height (or depth) of vehemence and venom, there is a small but nontrivial possibility that come November 7, we will find ourselves facing an outcome that would trigger a national political meltdown, in which a large portion of each side decries the election result as illegitimate. Indeed, your columnist can imagine four such Armageddon scenarios. I present them in order, from the most to the least likely—and least to most horrific:

1. The Romney Squeaker Scenario

Begin with the fact that, given where the national polls are now and the historical precedent of undecided voters’ breaking strongly for the challenger at the end, it’s perfectly possible for Romney to end up with a bit north of 50 percent of the popular vote. Then proceed to the electoral vote, where the GOP nominee has always faced a difficult path to 270. But imagine that Romney achieves the first step of carrying the three southern swing states—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia—which he may well do. And then either (a) takes Ohio plus Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin; or (b) falls short in Ohio but wins both Colorado and Wisconsin as well as Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada; or (c) conquers Colorado or Wisconsin plus all three of the smaller swing states. In any of these eventualities, Romney would win the White House with 271 to 276 electoral votes.

This would amount to the narrowest possible victory—and one that would all but certainly provoke the left into a howling fit. Given the controversies that have raged all year about voter-identification laws in states across the country, many Democrats would move instantly to claim that such laws were the reason Romney had prevailed. And that claim would just be the tip of a gnarly iceberg. Already my Twitter feed is overflowing with wild accusations about Romney “owning” and “rigging” voting machines in Ohio, and about an alleged Romney voter-suppression scheme code-named Project Orca.

The point here isn’t that the voter-I.D. laws aren’t nefarious and noxious; in many if not all cases, they absolutely are. Nor is it to prejudge the validity of the arguments that will be put forward about supposed acts of vote suppression. The point is that these arguments will be inevitable in the case of a hairbreadth Romney win; for many on the left, such an outcome is inherently suspect, essentially inconceivable absent electoral jiggery-pokery, and they are primed to denounce it as ill-gotten regardless of the facts.

2. The Reverse Gore Scenario

Back in 2000, you may recall (unless you’ve administered yourself a frontal lobotomy to ease the pain of it all), Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W. Bush (with the assistance of the Supreme Court) in the Electoral College. For the reasons stated above, it’s not hard to conjure a scenario in which Romney wins the popular vote narrowly, as Gore did then—but Obama winds up playing the role of Bush. To understand how this might occur, you need simply to understand two things: that Obama’s national popular-vote weakness is to no small extent a result of his staggering weakness in the South and Appalachia, where he trails Romney in many states by 20 or 30 points—far more than his advantage in the deep-blue West and Northeast; and that, despite the tightness of the race nationally, the margins of advantage he holds with Latinos, African-Americans, young voters, and college-educated white women, and their concentrations in the battleground states, are what gives him many more routes to 270 than Romney has.

How would the right react to seeing Obama reclaim the presidency after he lost the popular vote? In much the same way the left would respond to scenario No. 1: with wailing, gnashing, and a dudgeon so high that if you reached the top of it, you’d be able to touch Pluto. The Electoral College is, to be sure, a ridiculous mechanism for empowering a commander-in-chief—but it’s the way we do things around here. And the nightly assault on it in Hannityville, Coulterland, and the darker online precincts of the nuthouse right would only fuel the long-running attempt to undermine Obama’s standing as a valid occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

3. The Recount (or Recounts) Scenario

Obama and Romney are each in possession of many talented and savvy operatives, and among the savviest and sharpest are their top campaign attorneys, Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg respectively. But Bauer and Ginsberg are more than mere lawyers: They are specialists in the art, science, and blade-­wielding tactics involved in election recounts. (Ginsberg was a key player on Bush’s behalf in the 2000 imbroglio in Florida; Bauer’s role on Gore’s team was less pivotal, but he was in the fray as well.) This campaign has already featured extended legal wrangling in several states over those voter-I.D. laws—which means both sides have litigation-ready boots on the ground and are raring to engage already.

Given just how corset-tight the polls are in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida itself, a Florida Redux scenario might be more likely than anyone imagines—and could even, perish the thought, play out in more than one state simultaneously. Remember how bad 2000 was? This would be much worse. And not simply because the level of partisan vitriol heading into the fracas is so much higher, but also because the disruption in terms of governing would be so much greater. As most politically sentient beings know, in the aftermath of the election, the federal government will be staring into the abyss of the so-called fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the sequester, and another fight over the debt ceiling. Now consider the prospect of two or more months of 2000-style paralysis in the face of that challenge. The mind doth reel.

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes. Sounds crazy, right? Yeah, of course, but all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire. What would happen then? The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder. Which is why, on Election Night, you won’t find me rooting for either candidate but for clarity: a solid, sustainable victory for Obama or Romney in the popular and electoral votes—52-48, say, and north of 300 EVs to … whomever.

Which I know is probably a fantasy, but, hey, a boy can dream.