The Wildest Presidential Election Since 1824?

[ Posted Wednesday, July 11th, 2007 – 03:05 UTC ]


John Quincy Adams  Andrew Jackson

[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 that strikes 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] 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:

" 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..."

" 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?


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


8 Comments on “The Wildest Presidential Election Since 1824?”

  1. [1] 
    DemocracyAdvocate wrote:

    Good post. The prospect of going to the House of Reps is one more reason we should adopt the National Popular Vote plan ( and, which is getting some serious play in North Carolina and many other states.

    Note that Bloomberg actually could win under the electoral college as easily as he could be win by plurality. Look at our recent "innovative analysis" posting about this issue -- if Perot had won 35% of the national vote in 1992, he almost certainly would have won. It's at:

    You also might enjoy my memo on the unlikely prospects of a tie in the electoral college, but also how confusing it is if it might happen -- including the fact that South Dakota's Democratic Congresswoman Herseth has publicly pledged to vote the way her state voted (e.g, Republican). See:

    Also, a factor in all this is our failed voting system. See and

  2. [2] 
    dapper wrote:

    Dear Chris,

    Wow, that was quite a post. Sure gives one much to ponder about. Thank you SOoooooo much for doing all that research and then such a fine analysis. Kinda exciting, really.

    Of course I'm still of the mind to go into attack mode if Bloomberg should decide to run. Agape.

    John Edwards 08

    John Edwards "Gets it"

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To everyone -

    This article has been corrected.

    270 is the "magic number" of electoral votes to win, not 290 as I originally stated. Click on the Huffington Post link at the bottom of the article, and read the comments to see me get taken to task for this error (and my lame excuse).

    DemocracyAdvocate -

    I have edited your post. ONLY TWO THINGS were changed - I made the into a link to that URL, and I corrected the spelling of the word "post" in the first sentence because I just couldn't help myself! Anyway, not one other word was edited IN ANY WAY.

    To Everyone -

    DemocracyAdvocate's post has a lot of links in it. Normal policy is anything with links gets flagged for approval instead of posting automatically. This is to fight "comment spam." But each and every one of DA's links is worth reading, which is why I allowed it.

    I encourage everyone to check out the "Fair Vote" concept, and wish them luck and success in their mission. They are trying to do an "end run" around having to get a Constitutional Amendment to change the electoral college system, and are having a lot of success so far.

    I have mostly been advocating for a change in our primary system, as I think it is ripe for reform as well (2008 is going to be one big "test case" for a "national primary"). If you haven't read what I have to say about it, click the "Home" link at the top of this page, and then use the search button to search for "Carter" to see all my articles on the primaries (ignore the one about Oz).

    dapper -

    Today's post will be about Edwards. Look for it in a few hours.

    Thanks to all for commenting.


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Personally, I would LOVE to see an Independent Bloomberg candidacy... Give a decent alternative to the GOP and the Democratic parties. Both which, to be perfectly frank, sucks..

    Well, now that you have profiled the GOP "wild card" of Michael Bloomberg, should we expect an equally compelling and insightful profile of the Democratic Party "wild card" of Al Gore?? :D

    I promise to be gentle.. hehehehehe :D


  5. [5] 
    CDub wrote:

    Hello Chris,
    It was interesting when I received your message to check out this post, I was currently reading it on huffpo. I'm the kid that was suggesting you check out

    I think I may have been unclear when I sent you the link since I suggested that it was a way to get "we, the people" back into the democratic process and perhaps that suggested an "all votes are equal" type of initiative. I support the notion making all votes count the same, but the National Initiative for Democracy (ni4d) is an entirely different beast.

    The ni4d is off topic for this post, but since I broached the subject, and you sent me here to read up, please bear with me.

    The ni4d amounts to ammending the constitution to create a 4th branch of government composed of registered voters. Essentially co-equal to the legislature, the people could directly enact laws and ammend existing laws without interference from lobbyists. The result being an additional set of "checks and balances" composed of the people, those that this government is supposed to be of, by and for.

    I can't possibly do the subject justice, so I encourage you to follow the link and tell us what you see. Bring a lawyer though, since the full text of the amendment and a supporting law are there to peruse, and it's not necessarily an easy read.

    Love the site, putting it in my rotation.


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    CDub -

    I followed the link you sent me (and posted here) and it's indeed an interesting site.

    What CDub's site is proposing is to have national referenda in national elections. These are known at the state level as "Propositions" or "Initiatives."

    Living in California as I do, we have such propositions as part of every election. There's usually half a dozen of them on any given ballot. The most famous of these is probably Proposition 13.

    It's an example of "direct" or "pure" democracy: the people vote on a law, instead of voting for someone else to vote on laws for them. This can be useful when the state legislature refuses to act on contentious issues.

    CDub, I liked the site so much that I have now included it on my "Blogroll" or list of links (at the bottom of the left sidebar of any page on this site). I encourage others to check it out as well.

    I also encourage others to send me similar links. My "Blogroll" needs some work... it's on my "to do" list, and I apologize for not addressing it sooner.

    Anyway, CDub, thanks for the post and thanks for the link. I don't know what their chances are for actually succeeding in their efforts, but that's never stopped me from supporting an idea before, so I say more power to them!


  7. [7] 
    CDub wrote:

    Hello Again Chris,

    I'm no lawyer, so perhaps I misunderstand the ni4d, but as I understand it, it goes beyond the state level making the people a 4th branch of the federal government.

    The congress is not replaced, but instead the people are allowed to pass and repeal national laws.

    If it ever passes, I intend to propose a law such that congressional pay is tied directly to the median wage of the constituency they represent, or at minimum, that congressional payraises are voted on by the people, rather than the congress.

    It's kinda fun to imagine what you could do if you were allowed to become your own representative.

    I voted for the ni4d, and my voter ID was so low, I imagine they have a long way to go to reach 50% of voters in the most recent Presidential election.

    I hope folks take the time to check it out and vote. One cool thing, you can go back and change your vote at any time before the election is closed. They've been at this since 1992, so you get a lot of time to think it through.

  8. [8] 
    CDub wrote:

    I see you did catch the fact that it was proposals on a national scale, but it is important to note that votes are not tied to national elections, but the entire election system is web based and a proposal may be made at any time. The deadline for voting on any particular issue (if I understand correctly) is met at the point that the total number of votes equals 50% of the voters in the most recent presidential election. So it's possible for an election to end 20 minutes after it starts, or twenty years, provided of course I read it correctly.


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