The nail-biter: Why winning—or losing—a squeaker would be historic for Obama

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! NewsOctober 22, 2012

As the last debate approaches, the specter that haunted me a while back still hovers over this campaign: the possibility that we may be faced on election night with two, three, many Floridas. I now imagine both parties deploying AWACS filled with lawyers and organizers, circling the country, parachuting forces into New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado as state after state deadlocks on election night.

Whether or not this nightmare comes true—and I devoutly hope it does not—this campaign has already earned its place in the annals of the unusual. An incumbent president facing a very close election is overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, only three incumbents have won close elections.

Woodrow Wilson in 1916 won a 3-percentage-point popular vote margin, but it was California’s 13 electoral votes that gave him the White House—votes he won with a 3,700-vote plurality.

Harry Truman’s 1948 upset was won with about a 4.5-point popular vote plurality, but it was his remarkably close victories in Ohio, Illinois and California—each won by well under 1 percent of the vote—that put him back in the White House.

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George W. Bush won in 2004 by about 2.5 points, and a similar margin in Ohio gave him his second term. A 60,000-vote switch there would have produced the second straight election where the national popular vote winner was denied the presidency.

If the Romney campaign takes heart from the infrequency of a close incumbent victory, it should consider the other side of the coin. Only one incumbent has lost a close contest: Gerald Ford in 1976, who lost nationally by 2 points, but who would have won with a shift of some 14,000 votes in Ohio and Mississippi.

These elections are clear departures from the norm, where an incumbent wins either comfortably or overwhelmingly (Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton) or loses in similar fashion (Taft, Hoover, Carter, George H.W. Bush).

There is, of course, the possibility that the ground will shift in the next two weeks. A decisive debate performance, a late revelation, a sudden, seismic event at home or abroad could turn this cliffhanger into a rout.

As of now, though, 2012 looks as if it’s about to join that foursome of elections, one that will require gallons of caffeine on election night and the next morning before we learn whether the moving vans will be called to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.