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Why Blue State Votes May Matter This Year

Apocalypse is in the air. Not just the threat of Sandy, barreling toward the Mid-Atlantic coast, but the threat of a repeat of Florida 2000: a split in the winner of the Electoral College and the popular vote for president. Except this year, it’s more likely that it would be the Republican candidate winning the popular vote and the Democratic one winning the Electoral College—political stats prince Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model gives President Obama a 1.9 percent chance of winning the popular vote and losing the Electoral College, and Mitt Romney a 5.2 percent chance of doing so. I don’t believe it’s being melodramatic to predict that the latter outcome would produce a crisis. Obama’s legions of foes have had enough trouble accepting his legitimacy as president these past four years—now imagine if they actually managed to get a majority of voters to send him back to consort with Bill Ayers on the South Side of Chicago, yet had to endure another four years of him anyway. It would surely make Democratic resistance to George W. Bush in 2001 look like mild by comparison—and in that case, the bad feelings were of course greatly exacerbated by the fact that even his Electoral College victory was dubious.

There is, of course, a silver lining to this scenario: that it would almost surely result in newfound Republican support for a cause that has until now been a Democratic-led one, doing away with the Electoral College via the National Popular Vote initiative, in which states are backing legislation to award their electors based on the national popular vote, dependent on other states doing the same (it has been passed in states adding up to half of the 270 Electoral College votes required for it to go into effect). Still, noxious as the Electoral College is, one would rather not require a nasty legitimacy crisis (or widespread claims of one) to bring about the reform.

But there is another silver lining, as well—not to the outcome, but to the mere prospect of it. Namely, that everyone’s vote will sorta count this year. Every four years, we hear the understandable bewailing from voters in the deep blue and red states about their irrelevance in the face of the quadrennial Ohio and Florida fixation. Well, this year they have reason to feel better about it—and no excuse not to vote. Yes, their votes won’t matter for the race to 271 Electors. But they could matter quite a lot in the nationwide reckoning with the outcome that will follow.

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This is why I find it misplaced for conservatives to be mocking Lena Dunham’s controversial new pro-Obama video for its greater resonance in Brooklyn and Boston than in Dayton and Des Moines—it might actually matter quite a lot for Obama to get the “Girls” vote out in Prospect Heights.

And it’s also why a Democrat can’t help but quaver even more in the face of the forecasts for Sandy. If the storm hits as hard as predicted and causes lingering damage, it will almost certainly be cutting into voter turnout, between the loss of early voting next week and lingering inconvenience on Election Day. And it will be hitting in mostly blue-leaning areas along the coast. This would have the biggest impact in swing-state Virginia, if it at all impinged on turnout in the Democratic vote troves of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. But it could also reduce turnout in blue bastions such as D.C., Maryland, Delaware, greater Philadelphia and New Jersey—raising the odds of an election doomsday.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

Addendum, 4:20: A reader notes that blue-state votes matter a whole lot in congressional races, regardless of the Electoral College math. some places this year, such as Massachusetts (Scott Brown vs Elizabeth Warren), Connecticut (Linda McMahon versus Chris Murphy) and parts of New York state (several close House races.) But less true in most of NYC, and D.C., and Baltimore, and Chicago, and a whole bunch of other true-blue zones where there's little down-ballot competition.