Wednesday, a full 140 days before Election Day 2012, ABC News's political reporters sat down with former ABC News President David Westin to discuss an important question: "Could the Bush-Gore election mess happen again?" They were focused on the mess provided by news organizations that wrongly called the election, but the broader question -- could the election end up so close that we wouldn't know whether Obama or Romney won -- has been on the minds of many a political pundit this month, and no wonder. Election nights are like a political reporter's Super Bowl. Everyone's watching, and in 2000, everyone watched for 36 full days of overtime as the Bush-Gore mess got sorted out. We usually refer to such an event as an "absolute nightmare scenario" or "one of these electoral college nightmares" "the country's worst nightmare," but let's be honest, this is the stuff pundit-dreams are made of, as evidenced by the election snafu's enduring legacy, which at this point seems to be an endless pondering of unlikely electoral college scenarios. For in every election to follow 2000, pundits have wondered, could a Bush-Gore tie happen again and throw us into a month of rapt CNN-watching? Here's a spoiler alert: Such articles are usually filled with complex number crunching and long on speculation but the answer is always some form of "Yes! But it probably won't!" A close election is always theoretically possible!
In 2012, as President Obama faces Mitt Romney The Guardian's Harry Enten's long answer to the same question, which he asked last month: "Most polls of this year's presidential election are closer than 4 points. That suggests that there is at least some chance that one of these candidates could win the popular vote, but not the electoral college." Short answer: there's a chance!
Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg's long answer, also put forward last month: "Most of the same states are in play as were in 2000, and any close popular vote outcome raises the possibility of a split decision, especially because Obama is likely to 'waste' large numbers of votes in carrying a handful of populous states." Short answer: "There is no reason that couldn't happen again." Oh really?
In 2008, Obama faced John McCain and pundits proved that we can still wonder about a 2000 election replay no matter the likelihood. Nate Silver's blog, now at the New York Times, had a landing page dedicated to the 12th Amendment. A small piece of one of his long answers: "As you may have noticed from our scenario chart, the probability of a tie has increased dramatically in recent days and now stands at 3.2 percent." A dramatic increase to 3.2 percent? This is how willing we are to ponder the unlikely at such length.
Meanwhile, Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press wondered in a headline on the eve of election day itself, "Can Obama win popular vote but lose election?" She wrote, "Sure, chances of Republicans retaining the White House are remote. But some last-minute state polls show the GOP nominee closing the gap in key states — Republican turf of Virginia, Florida and Ohio among them, and Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania, too." Several dozen hours later, Obama very comfortably won by more than 9.5 million votes with 192 more electoral votes than McCain.
In 2004, George W. Bush faced John Kerry. The memory of 2000 was fresh, and the election did end up being quite close. Dana Milbank put forward several "nightmare" scenarios, including a 269-269 electoral college tie, and wrote, "None of these scenarios is likely to occur next week, but neither is any of them far-fetched." Isn't it always the case? NPR's Ken Rudin worried about a tie, writing, "I suspect, the country would be thrown into a crisis that would make Florida 2000 look like a picnic." But of course, "There are many 'ifs' to consider before we reach this point." Mmhmm.
As the vote turned out, there were some Democrats in Congress (like Sen. Barbara Boxer of California) who tried to mount a Florida-like challenge over the outcome of Ohio when it came time to tally electoral votes. Bush had won the state by 118,775 votes and the band of Democrats said that there were enough voting irregularities to throw the state's 20 electoral votes to Kerry and thereby give him a winning 271. Not only was Ohio not as close in 2004 as Florida was in 2000, it wasn't even the narrowest margin in 2004. Bush won New Mexico by just 5,988 votes, but as it only had 7 electoral votes, it wouldn't have changed the outcome if it went the other way. So no there was no wall-to-wall recount coverage in New Mexico... or, for that matter, to the Ohio controversy.
Look, we understand electoral vote counting is an intellectual exercise and there's a certain population of readers which loves playing mind games with electoral maps. (We often do as well.) But let's agree that at this point, the novelty of this particular electoral game is a bit played out. What's especially humorous about it is that political number crunchers are trying to accurately predict the likelihood that we'll revisit a night when political number crunchers utterly failed to accurately predict the election. It's almost certain that 140 days before voting, a headline wondering "Could we face another Bush-Gore mess?" is unlikely to contain any useful information. But if the race stays tight (or even if it doesn't) expect to see it several more times anyway.