The Wildest Presidential Election Since 1824?

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[John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson]


His name looms large over the presidential race, terrifying both Democrat and Republican alike. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, more than all other names looming out of the misty shadows of this race (Gingrich, Gore, Hagel, etc.), is the one name thatstrikes fear and trembling into campaign consultants on both sides of the political divide. Bloomberg is their absolute worst nightmare: an independent candidate with such a boodle of cash that he can completely finance his own race and at the same time outspend both the Democratic and Republican candidates -- combined.

Plus, unlike H. Ross Perot, he does not appear to be nutty as a fruitcake.

Now, conventional wisdom says that Bloomberg just cannot win. The odds are stacked against him, and the biggest hurdle is our quaint electoral college system. Remember, in 1992, Perot got 19% of the popular vote (an astounding feat for an independent, to be sure), but he did not win a single electoral college vote.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, just might be able to do so.

This far out, I just can't see any possible way that Bloomberg wins the whole race. That's a crazier scenario than I am willing to predict at this point, in other words. But I could indeed see him taking New York, and/or maybe one of the states close enough to New York City to know Bloomberg's name already. New Jersey, perhaps. Or even Connecticut or Pennsylvania.

But that could be enough to throw the entire race. New York has 31 electoral votes -- quite a big chunk -- meaning New York alone could throw the race, if Bloomberg gets as little as 35% of the state's vote. And New Jersey has 15 electors, Pennsylvania has 21, and even Connecticut has seven. Some combination of these states could be enough to insure that neither the Democratic nor Republican nominee gets the clear majority of 270 electoral votes (the "magic number" needed to win).

Of course, we all remember what happens in this instance, right? Well ... OK ... I admit that I had to look it up, too. It's in Section II of the Constitution, but this original text was completely rewritten by the 12th Amendment, which states:

" ... the person having the greatest number of [electoral college] votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President."

[Obligatory Monty Python Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch quote: "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out." You're welcome.]

Ahem. Where was I?

Ah, yes ... Amendment XII goes on from there, and adds a twist:

"But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote."

So the House, in its most important duty under the Constitution -- electing a President -- is told to behave more like the Senate, where each state is equally represented.


Unfortunately, that's all the Constitution has to say on the matter. No more advice is given as to the mechanics of how to conduct such an election. This sent me to hit the history books, and the House of Representatives' web site. The history books told me it has happened twice before, in the elections of 1800 and 1824.


A Historical Interlude

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both got an equal number of electoral votes (73). In 1824, there were four candidates with electoral votes, and none with an absolute majority: Andrew Jackson (99), John Quincy Adams (84), William H. Crawford (41), and Henry Clay (37).

Obviously, Jefferson won the election of 1800, and Burr went on to become what now must be referred to as "only the first Vice President to shoot someone."

In the outcome of the 1824 election, although Jackson had more electoral votes -- as well as 43% of the popular vote (to Adams' 32%) -- Adams was chosen by the House. Jackson had to wait another four years to get into the White House. Which, I'm willing to bet, Al Gore is fully aware of.

But the most interesting thing is the rules the House agreed upon for the actual voting. You can download the original of these [PDF file -- if you have problems with this link, go here and click on the PDF link for chapter 62] from the House's archives (it has the rules for both times it happened, which are almost identical -- except that they remembered to tell the President-Elect the outcome of the voting the second time it happened -- Jefferson had to read about his own election in the newspapers, I guess).

Here are the operative excerpts from these rules:

" ... in case [no candidate] shall receive the votes of a majority of all the States on the first ballot, the House shall continue to ballot for a President, without interruption by other business, until a President be chosen."

"The doors of the Hall shall be closed during the balloting, except against the Members of the Senate, stenographers, and the officers of the House."

"A ballot box shall be provided for each State. The Representatives of each State shall, in the first instance, ballot among themselves, in order to ascertain the vote of their State ... in case any one of the persons from whom the choice is to be made shall receive a majority of the votes given, on any one balloting by the Representatives of a State, the name of that person shall be written ... and in case the votes so given shall be divided so that neither of said persons shall have a majority of the whole number of votes given by such State, on any one balloting, then the word 'divided' shall be written ... "

" ... in case of an equal division of the votes of States, the question shall be lost. ... When either of the persons from whom the choice is to be made shall have received a majority of all the States, the Speaker shall declare the same, and that that person is elected President of the United States."

Got all of that? They basically lock themselves in, kick out the press and the public (although the whole thing is on record, so the public can see most of what happened after the fact), and, by the way, ties don't count. Tie votes actually don't count in two different ways -- if any state is tied in their internal balloting, then that state loses its vote, in essence; and it also now takes 26 states to win, as a tie of the whole House means they start all over again.

Similar to the way the Pope is elected, the House just stays in "conclave" and keeps on voting -- over and over and over again -- until somebody cracks, and a majority is won. While John Quincy Adams won in a single day, the election of Thomas Jefferson took seven whole days, and thirty-six separate ballots.

My Bloombergian Prediction

What would this process mean to the "Bloomberg" scenario? Who would come out the winner?

The last time this prospect was even raised was in 2000. One possible outcome of the whole Florida fiasco was if Congress had refused to certify Florida's electoral votes. This would have thrown the whole election into the House itself. But what would the outcome have been?

In that different time (and with a much different House), Bush would have won overwhelmingly -- by my unofficial count, the vote would have been Bush - 28 votes; Gore - 18 votes; with four states tied. There are two interesting things about this hypothetical vote. The first is that the House was even closer than it is now in absolute numbers (223-R / 210-D), but the Republicans still dominated in the state count. The second is that Bush would have lost his home state of Texas (17-D to 13-R).

In today's House of Representatives, Democrats hold a bigger numeric majority than Republicans did back then. But, unfortunately, when you break the states down, you get Democratic - 26 states; Republican - 20 states; with four currently tied (although one may not be much longer -- Georgia is tied 6/6 with one House vacancy, which could be filled). That would win Democrats the White House if the election were held today in the House, but it's still a pretty small margin.

But here's the real wild card -- it is not this House that gets to vote. It's the incoming House which gets elected in November, 2008. Those historical votes in the House (mentioned earlier) actually happened in 1801 and 1825, respectively.

Which means that all bets are off. Electing strategically targeted majorities in the House may actually be the deciding factor in electing our next President, as strange as that sounds.

The whole scenario seems like a wild aberration, but when you consider that in my lifetime alone, I've seen a president resign (who was replaced by a president who never ran in a national election), a presidential impeachment and full trial in the Senate, and an election decided by the Supreme Court. The House electing our President doesn't seem quite so bizarre, given our relatively recent flexing of other of the more obscure portions of the Constitution.

The media (myself included) have been guilty of hyping the 2008 presidential election as a rather unique event, since it's been over a half century (or is it almost a full century?) since we've had a race between the two major parties with no "heir apparent" (or incumbent President or Vice President) on either ticket. I wrote an article a few months ago that I thought was a pretty radical prediction -- that we could have one or even both party conventions next year actually select the nominee instead of being some Kabuki theater where everyone knows the outcome before it happens.

But what if a half century, or even a full century (it all depends on how you define "heir apparent," apparently ... ) isn't long enough to hearken back in American history to find a more chaotic election? What if we have to reach back to the dim and distant past of 1825 for an equivalent event?

Since I've raised the question of what would happen if the presidential race were actually decided in the House, I will follow that thought out onto its limb and make a prediction how it will all turn out.

If Bloomberg runs (and, it should be noted, that is still a mighty big "if"), I predict that with his enormous bankroll (i.e., his own fat wallet) he actually will win some electoral votes. And I'll go further and state that this will indeed cause the election to wind up in the House.

Which means (my final outlandish prediction): President [Clinton, Edwards, Gore, or Obama -- whoever the Democratic nominee happens to be] will be named in early January, 2009, by the incoming House of Representatives -- in the wildest election this country has seen in the last 184 years.

How's that for some radical prognostication?


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