Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Report, said there's a 10 to 15 percent chance Republican nominee Mitt Romney could collect more votes than President Barack Obama but not reach the 270 electoral votes necessary to oust the incumbent.
"In 53 out of 56 elections the popular vote and the electoral vote have gone the same way – that works out to 95 percent," he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute. "So of course it could happen, but it's very, very unlikely. But now I think there's a fair chance at that. And if that happens, Romney would be the one likely to come out on the popular vote side and Obama on the electoral vote side."
Electoral votes are distributed among states based on population, but thanks to high concentrations of like-minded voters in certain states and other factors, it's possible for splits to happen.
Right now, Obama is clearly ahead in 21 states (including the District of Columbia), with a total of 253 electoral votes, 17 short of the 270 needed to win.
In addition to the 17 states (including D.C.) that have never been competitive, which total 201 electoral votes, I’ve added four states that have been in play, in varying degrees, where Obama now has a clear lead in credible, private surveys from long-standing professional polling firms calling landlines and cellphones (notwithstanding whatever the robo and Internet polling shows). The states are Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10).
Conversely, Romney is ahead in 23 states with a total of 191 electoral votes, 79 shy of 270. Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, which once looked like they were slipping more into the Romney orbit, have pulled back to essentially even-money contests.
The seven jump ball states with a total of 94 electoral votes are Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), and Virginia (13).
To win, Obama needs to win states with 17 (or 18 percent) of the 94 electoral votes in the seven Toss Up states, while Romney needs a whopping 79 (or 84 percent) of the 94 electoral votes.
However, the Obama advantage is not as clear cut as this suggests. In each of these states, Obama and Romney are within 5 percentage points of each other and in most they are within 2 or 3 points of each other.
This race appears to be going to the wire, and the chances of a split popular vote/Electoral College vote are real. Romney looks to be at least an even-money bet for the popular vote, but Obama seems to have the edge in the electoral vote.
Beyond the partisan meltdown of an electoral/popular split, the West Coast's method of mail-in ballots can delay the tallying of the popular vote... maybe for more than a week. In Oregon we can drop off paper ballots as late as 8PM on Tuesday, same in California. But in Washington state, paper ballots only need to be postmarked by November 6.
Even worse, it won’t be easy to calculate how many votes remain: the percentage of precincts reporting only roughly correlates with the unknown number of outstanding ballots. This is especially true in the states with extensive mail balloting. In California, for instance, the Associated Press correctly reported that 100 percent of precincts were reporting (not sure about the date), even though only 89 percent of the eventual number ballots were tabulated. Obama would win 65 percent of those ballots, expanding his margin of victory by an additional 420,000 votes.
If Obama performs as strongly in California, Washington, and Oregon as he did in 2008, he could trail by several percentage points in the national popular vote while giving his victory or concession speech and ultimately seize the lead in the popular vote in the following days and weeks. Even a more middling performance out West, closer to Kerry's, would still allow him to make considerable gains. Unless Election Night ends with Obama holding a lead in the popular vote or Romney holding a large enough advantage to withstand the possibility of a predictably strong showing in late ballots, we may not know the winner of the popular vote for weeks.
Here's hoping for things to turn out cut and dry.