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Shift of fewer than 400,000 votes could have swung the election in McCain?s favor

by Laura Kirshner // Published November 5, 2008
In stark contrast to the elections of 2000 and 2004, President-elect Barack Obama won yesterday's election with no questions asked. He took 364 electoral votes (assuming North Carolina settles in his favor), 94 votes more than he needed to reach the magic threshold of 270 electoral votes, and he carried a comfortable majority of the popular vote with a 7,351,967-vote lead over Sen. McCain.

However, a shift of fewer than 400,000 votes, or about 0.33% of all votes cast, could have changed the outcome of the election dramatically, swinging the title of President-elect over to Sen. McCain.

Thanks to the Electoral College, our President is elected through 56 separate contests (50 states, five congressional districts and the District of Columbia), rather than a single nationwide contest. Most of these contests are not competitive-the so-called "safe states" are already in the bank for one candidate or the other before the campaigns even begin. But a handful of contests are in highly competitive battleground states. In each of these states, the candidates can bolster their Electoral College vote totals by winning a slim majority of the statewide popular vote. As we learned in 2000, this can result in a President-elect who does not win the national popular vote. That year a few hundred votes swung the state of Florida, and its 27 electoral votes, to George W. Bush, electing himas the 43rd President of the United States.

In yesterday's election, a shift of fewer than 400,000 votes in the states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Colorado, and New Hampshire would have given Sen. McCain 273 electoral votes, just enough to send him to the White House. Based on the latest figures from the New York Times, Sen. McCain would need to shift just over half of the following vote totals to win the election:

State / Popular vote difference

OH / 206270 FL / 189777 VA / 155627 IN / 26163 NC / 12163 CO / 142196 NH / 65020 Total / 797216

Shift necessary to reverse election - 398,615

In North Carolina, for example, to reverse Obama's narrow win and secure its 15 electoral votes, Sen. McCain would have needed to shift only 6,082 voters to his side.  Similar shifts in the remaining states would have delivered us yet another Electoral College-winner who had lost the national popular vote.

This election did not result in a repeat of the 2000 fiasco, but it came dangerously close. In five of the last 12 elections, a similar shift of a handful of votes would have elected the second-place winner, though in these cases that shift need only occur in one or two states. In 1976, for example, a shift of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio would have resulted in a victory for Gerald Ford, regardless of Jimmy Carter's 1.7 million-vote lead nationwide. Similarly, in 2004, a shift of 59,393 votes in Ohio would have nullified President Bush's 3.5 million-vote lead nationwide and elected John Kerry.

If Sen. McCain had pulled off these marginal shifts, Obama's 7.3 million vote lead nationwide would not be able to protect him from the nasty side effects of the Electoral College.

These close calls occur all too often, as do wrong-winner elections (which should never occur!). This is why we must push to enact the National Popular Vote interstate compact by 2012, to eliminate these 51 separate contests and institute a single nationwide election for the leader of our country.