math: electoral style

I got in the dangerous and time-consuming game of playing Electoral College math. It was highly illuminating with a week left before the election (and lots of time available thanks to Sandy). Here are the scenarios that I see using the great tool available at

First, some preliminaries. I started with 270towin’s battleground states, but allocated Michigan (16 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20 EV), and Wisconsin (10 EV) to President Obama and allocated Florida (29 EV) and North Carolina (15 EV) to Governor Romney. Assuming this allocation, President Obama starts with 247 electoral votes compared to Governor Romney’s 235. This leaves six states and 56 electoral votes up for grabs: Colorado (9 EV), Iowa (6 EV), Ohio (18 EV), Nevada (6 EV), New Hampshire (4 EV), and Virginia (13 EV).

The easiest case for President Obama is if he wins Ohio. With an Ohio win, he will have 265 electoral votes and need to win only one of the following four states to carry the Electoral College: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, or Virginia. Governor Romney would need to sweep those four states and New Hampshire to win the Electoral College while losing Ohio.

If President Obama loses Ohio but wins Virginia his path is more difficult but still doable since he would have 260 electoral votes to Governor Romney’s 253. He would win the Electoral College by winning any two of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada or New Hampshire. In fact, he would have exactly enough electoral votes to win (270) with a combination of either Iowa and New Hampshire or Nevada and New Hampshire.

If Governor Romney wins both Ohio and Virginia, President Obama would need to sweep Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire to win. This is possible, especially since Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has all four of those states leaning to President Obama, but the margins are scarily thin for President Obama’s campaign.

But, speaking of scary, note that I mentioned that Governor Romney would need to win Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Virginia and New Hampshire to win if he loses Ohio. That is technically true to win the Electoral College. If, however, Governor Romney only wins the first four of those five states, then the result of the Electoral College would a 269-269 tie. Just to make things even more complicated, ties could also result if President Obama wins Virginia, New Hampshire and either Iowa or Nevada (and no other contested state) if President Obama loses one of Maine’s Congressional districts. Maine splits its electoral votes so that each Congressional district awards an electoral vote to the winner of in the district and the the statewide popular vote winner gets the additional two electoral votes in the state. Confused yet?

According to the Twelfth and Twentieth Amendments, any of these scenarios would mean that the incoming House of Representatives would decide the election based on how state delegations vote. Using the current Congress as a proxy, Governor Romney would win 33-14 (but wait, you say, there are 50 states and 33+14=47; well, three states — Minnesota, New Jersey, and Washington — have split delegations and would likely not vote). This estimate is probably close but it could be off because the 113th Congress (the incoming Congress) will be the first to be based on apportionment following the 2010 Census. For example, Washington gains a representative while New Jersey loses one, both of which would break a tie in those states.

What is even more interesting is that we could end up with a Romney/Biden administration because the Senate votes for the Vice President based on a vote of the Senators. There are 51 Democrats (plus two independents that caucus with the Democrats) and 47 Republicans in the Senate. Again, the incoming Senate could be different, but the Democrats will likely keep control of the Senate on Tuesday.

It seems unlikely this last eventuality would come to pass and, for what it’s worth, Nate Silver estimates this eventuality at less than one percent. But, I’m not sure that is even big enough given that
I’m not sure that I can handle two major contested elections in twelve years.

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