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The Statistical Significance of Sandy

Now that the rains have eased, know this: The historic storm could alter the electoral- and popular-vote math.

photo of Major Garrett
October 31, 2012

One of the more absurd notions to crop up in the latter stages of the presidential campaign is that GOP challenger Mitt Romney could  win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College vote.

Until Hurricane Sandy, this was a cable-TV notion in search of historical and mathematical mooring. That it bobbed aimlessly through the occasionally mindless waters of cable TV made it no different from any other might-this-happen adventure in televised banality.

But think about it for just two seconds.


The concept is built on the theory that Romney could run up the vote in Southern and high-plains states and get close enough to President Obama in the swing states to win the popular vote but fall just short of the magic 270 Electoral College number for victory.

I know from where this myopia springs. It’s hard in this campaign to remember that California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Illinois are still part of the union and that their votes count. We remember Massachusetts only because Romney’s headquarters is there. But we forget about it entirely in the context of this Romney-wins-the-popular-vote-only lunacy.

Consider this simple demonstration of Clintonian arithmetic. Here are the margins of victory in 2000, 2004, and 2008 for the Democratic candidate in the following big-population blue states:

California: Al Gore over George W. Bush by 1.3 million; John Kerry over Bush by 1.2 million; Obama over John McCain by 3.2 million.

New York: Gore over Bush by 1.7 million; Kerry over Bush by 1.3 million; Obama over McCain by 2 million.

New Jersey: Gore over Bush by 504,000; Kerry over Bush by 241,000; Obama over McCain by 602,000.

Maryland: Gore over Bush by 331,000; Kerry over Bush by 308,000; Obama over McCain by 669,000.

Massachusetts: Gore over Bush by 737,000; Kerry over Bush by 732,000; Obama over McCain by 795,000.

Illinois: Gore over Bush by 569,000; Kerry over Bush by 545,000; Obama over McCain by 1.3 million.

What about Texas, you might say? Wouldn’t Romney roll up huge numbers there, partially offsetting these big blue states?

See for yourself.

Texas: Bush over Gore by 1.3 million; Bush over Kerry by 1.6 million; McCain over Obama by 950,000.

Ask yourself this. Has Texas become more or less ideologically and demographically hospitable to Democrats since 2008, and does it still offset all of the blue states? What about California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, or Illinois? Of these, you can argue that only New Jersey has taken a slightly more right-leaning slant since 2008. Even so, the state has, on average, given the Democratic nominee 449,000 more votes than the Republican in the past three cycles.

Don’t kid yourself that turnout would be lower in these states this time because they aren’t swing states and don’t receive the media attention or candidate visits that other places get. That was just as true in 2000, 2004, and 2008 as it is now. And the popular-vote margins in these states are enormous and will loom large for Obama.

All this means Obama won’t have a popular-vote problem with Romney. He may have an Electoral College problem, though.

Imagine a scenario where Romney edges Obama by 100,000 in Ohio, 30,000 in Iowa, 15,000 in New Hampshire, and 50,000 in Virginia. That’s 41 electoral votes with a microscopic edge of 195,000 votes in four states. That 195,000 would be slightly more than a third of the average Democratic margin since 2000 in New Jersey and one-tenth of the average Democratic winning margin in California.

Here’s where Sandy comes in and could make a profound difference in terms of the popular and electoral votes.

Pennsylvania took a hit from Sandy—not the biggest, but serious. The storm wreaked havoc in Philadelphia and the eastern part of the state. Even before Sandy struck, the Obama campaign announced that it was going up with TV ads to protect a statistically small lead. Obama knows he has to run up the vote in Philadelphia and outperform Romney in Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery counties in the Philly suburbs to offset Romney’s dominance in western Pennsylvania.

Mobilizing voters in Philadelphia will be crucial and a big post-Sandy challenge. How important are these votes for Obama?

In south-central Philadelphia’s 1st Congressional District, Obama defeated McCain by 222,664 votes. Kerry beat Bush there by 179,818. In western Philadelphia’s 2nd Congressional District, Obama defeated McCain by 267,250 votes. Kerry beat Bush there by 228,363.

From two Philly districts, Obama extracted a popular-vote advantage of 489,914. Obama carried Pennsylvania by 620,478. Seventy-nine percent of Obama’s statewide margin came from the 1st and 2nd districts. Those votes and the ability of those voters to navigate city streets and deal with the post-Sandy deluge may loom large in the battle for Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes. This will also be true in Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery for both campaigns. But inner-city Philadelphia is vital to Obama.

The president might also absorb popular-vote losses disproportionate to his 2008 performance or the Kerry and Gore standards in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Together, these states produced an Obama vote victory of 3.4 million votes. They gave Kerry a 2.3 million edge and Gore a 2.7 million edge. The three-cycle average of Democratic nominee victories in these three states combined is 2.8 million.  

Storm-diminished turnouts in these three states could cost Obama tens of thousands of popular votes. It could also cost him 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania. The implications are obvious in Virginia as well, but that state was always going to be close and the margin of victory was understood to be narrow. Obama has ways to win without Virginia but not many without Pennsylvania.

The chance of a Romney popular-vote victory and an Obama Electoral College victory were always statistically and mathematically slim. The chances of the opposite occurring were always easier for me to see. And Sandy may alter that terrain in ways that prove more harmful to Obama than Romney. 

This article appears in the November 1, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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