It’s generally expected that the 2020 presidential election will be very close, particularly in the Electoral College, where Donald Trump won 306 out of 538 electoral votes, despite losing the popular vote by more than two percent. There’s some talk that the gap between popular and electoral votes could actually grow wider thanks to a more fortunate distribution of Republican popular votes in highly competitive states. But given the relatively narrow range of states really in play in a competitive presidential election, one especially bizarre scenario is actually one that’s worth thinking about: a tie in the electoral college.
If you take the 2016 map and flip Michigan and Pennsylvania (but not Wisconsin) from red to blue, and also flip the 2d congressional district of Nebraska (carried by Trump in 2018 by just two points; Nebraska as well as Maine allocates electoral votes to individual congressional districts) from red to blue–you’d wind up with a 269-269 tie.
If that were to happen, the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the newly-elected House of Representatives would take over the presidential contest with each state casting one vote for its entire House delegation. States with tied delegations cast no vote.
As Kyle Kondik notes, in the current House Republicans control 26 delegations and Democrats 23 (Pennsylvania is tied). Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball projections indicate a strong possibility Republicans will not only hold but increase the number of delegations they control:
Based on our assessment, Republicans start with a hard floor of 19 delegations, with an additional six likely to stay Republican. That’s 25 delegations right there. Florida, where the GOP holds a 14-13 edge, is leans Republican — that’s 26, the magic number.
Meanwhile, Democrats have 14 safe delegations, three likely delegations, and two leans delegations. That’s only 19.
So if you think the electoral college has a pro-Republican small-state tilt (and it does), it’s nothing compared to a back-up system for electing presidents in which California’s huge 53-member House delegation is equal in power to Wyoming’s sole representative.
The one time in U.S. history the House elected a president (in 1824, when there were four major candidates and none won an electoral college majority), the election of John Quincy Adams over the much larger vote-winner Andrew Jackson produced immense and long-standing bitterness, much of it directed at an alleged “corrupt bargain” whereby fourth-placed finisher Henry Clay guided his House support to Adams.
If the possibility of this House presidential election isn’t weird enough, the Senate separately elects the vice president, with each senator casting a vote. So you could in theory have a president from one party and a veep from the other. That might be the ultimate symbol of partisan gridlock.