Electoral College, Popular Vote Split is Possible, Experts Say

There's a real chance Mitt Romney could win the popular vote but lose the White House

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity gala organized by the Archdiocese of New York and also attended by President Barack Obama,Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.

The election night drama of 2000 may be recreated this year, as experts say there is a real chance for one presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the presidency thanks to the Electoral College system.

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.

[Election 2012: Examining the Swing States]

"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. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush edged Democrat Al Gore in Florida by just hundreds of votes, an outcome that tipped all of Florida's 25 electoral votes into his column. But Gore garnered a plurality of votes nationwide.

Current polling shows Obama with a slight lead in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa, and Ohio, while Virginia is a toss-up. Even if Virginia goes for Romney, that would be enough electoral votes for Obama's re-election. The popular vote split scenario could emerge if Romney blew out the margins in deep red states like Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arizona.

[READ: Why Romney's Recent Polling Burst May Not Be Enough to Win]

Amy Walter, political director at ABC News, said Romney will run closer to Obama across the country than 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, pushing him closer in the overall national vote tally.

"They are not going to lose by the same margins that John McCain did in places like Illinois; you can see those numbers going up even in states that [Romney] will lose," she said.

Recent polling shows Romney could win a number of more populous swing states but still lose the electoral vote to Obama, something that would also pad his popular vote total, Walter said.

"Look at those states that are red. If you run up the score in a state like Texas, a lot of people live there, and if you do win Florida, North Carolina, even Ohio, you can win all of those if you are Mitt Romney and still lose," she said.

[READ: In Ohio, It's All About Getting Supporters to the Polls]

Typically, it's Democrats who tend to fare better in the total vote tally, Cook said.

"Normally, a Democrat would be better off with the popular vote because they run up the score in enormously populous states like California and New York," he said. "The only really populous state the Republicans run up the score in is Texas and so Democrats waste more votes than Republicans do."

Cook predicted a reversal of the 2000 outcome would flip-flop partisan discourse on the country's electoral system.

"I think all of the Republicans that saw great benefit in the Electoral College back in 2000 may be re-thinking that and vice-versa the Democrats on the other side," he said.

[READ: Obama Continues Attacks on Romney as Campaign Heads Into the Final Stretch]

Walter and Cook agreed that such an outcome would serve to further polarize the country, with the losing half feeling disenfranchised or cheated.

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at rmetzler@usnews.com.