Jamelle thinks that a popular vote loss for Obama would mean Very Bad Things:
It would – in every possible way – be an utter disaster for our politics. In fact, I’d rather see McCain win the popular vote and the Electoral College; just so we could avoid the poisonous attacks and Republican accusations of illegitimacy* which unquestionably would follow in the wake of an Obama electoral college win, but popular vote loss. If Obama wins this election, I want it to be a clear and convincing win; ideally, he’d break fifty percent. But if that doesn’t happen, fine. The most important thing is that he comes away from the election having won the more votes than John McCain.
Although I agree a popular vote routing would be a heavy political stone to carry right out of the inaugural gates, I don’t think it would be the disaster Jamelle predicts , regardless of Republican rhetoric. It’s useful to remember here that Bill Clinton only won only 43% of the popular vote–that’s 57% of the electorate who voted for someone else. It didn’t seriously inhibit Clinton’s early policy goals (a good case can be made that the bungling of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hurt Clinton more in his first 100 days than his lack of popular support). And four years later Clinton captured just under 50% of the popular vote.
Politically, if not tempermentally, the country is still relatively split, and this election is going to be close like the past two presidential elections. I think it’s safe to assume that neither Obama nor McCain would win with a large enough margin to be called a “mandate.” Obama is still favored to win, but not by much more than 3-5% of the popular vote. If McCain wins it’s likely to be even closer, so either candidate will have to make some sort of bid for public political unity. I think Obama is in a stronger positon to do this than McCain, whose “maverick” brand has been tarnished and would come to Washington trailing a Republican establishment heavily invested in Nixonland politics. The Democrats will certainly have their work cut out for them, but Obama’s political skills and charisma–not to mention disaffected moderate Republians and Bush fatigue–would go along way to greasing the legislative wheels in his favor.