The Republican National Convention has come and gone, and the Never Trump movement proved to be less open revolt on the convention floor and more a few seriously pregnant pauses in Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement speech. Donald Trump is officially the Republican nominee, so we have likely passed our last, best opportunity for electoral chaos. It wasn’t so long ago that politics dorks like me were thinking this might finally be the year of a brokered convention, or a defiant third-party candidacy from a loser in the primaries, or whatever else. But that’s all done now, so it’s time for us nerds to face up to the far more serious, real-world potential for chaos this election represents. Or, dammit, we can put off reality a little while longer by imagining the craziest, wildest electoral fever dream of them all, with a little historical spice thrown in!
Before going full political fan fiction here, let’s keep in mind the dominant narrative of Trump’s candidacy, which has been the huge disconnect between voters and the establishment. Trump has already successfully navigated all the hurdles the Republican party has put in place to prevent nominees like him, but there are still a couple rarely used, pro-establishment safeguards that go right back to the Founding Fathers. The Electoral College itself was originally conceived as a much more active intermediary between the popular vote and the eventual choice for president. The founders envisaged wise electors individually voting their conscience, with the will of the people only a relatively minor consideration. Since that pretty much immediately proved to not be how things worked out, we’ll shelve the frantic Googling of “faithless electors; for another day and consider what happens if neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton wins the needed 270 electoral votes, sending the election to the House of Representatives for the first time since 1824.
There are a handful of scenarios in which the two tie with 269 votes, but the far more fun way to get there is if other candidate(s) pick off a few key states. We could focus on Gary Johnson here—perhaps some big-money donors have officially had enough after the convention and throw some super PAC money his way—but let’s instead consider a modified version of a plan Republican insiders were reportedly considering a few months back, in which candidates run independent campaigns in specific regions. And who better to put forward for such a task than the two men who did best again Trump in the primaries, Ted Cruz and John Kasich? It’s too late to launch viable national campaigns, but there’s still just enough time for them to file in a few key states. For Cruz, he can capitalize on Mormons’ deep-seated dislike of Trump by targeting western states he previously won: Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, all of which have filing deadlines between August 15 and 30. He could also go after Kansas, though there he would need to find 5,000 signatures by August 1. As for Kasich, his region is, well, basically just Ohio, but someone absolutely has to win a swing state like that for this cockamamie scheme to work.
Here’s an electoral map in which Kasich takes Ohio and Cruz takes those four western states:
Trump has done relatively well otherwise, taking Florida and Pennsylvania, leaving him at 236 and Clinton at 265. Doing some quick addition with Cruz’s four states reveals why I suggested he go after Kansas as well as the Mormon bloc: By winning all four, he cobbles together 19 electoral votes to Kasich’s 18 in Ohio. (This despite Ohio having three million more people in it than those four states combined.) That matters because, according to the 12th Amendment, the House only considers the top three finishers in the Electoral College, meaning Cruz and Kasich would be in a de facto head-to-head race for the all-important bronze medal.
There’s some historical precedent for such chicanery. In 1836, the Whig Party ran four regional candidates against unpopular Democrat Martin Van Buren. Historians disagree on whether this was a coordinated strategy or just a reflection of the Whigs’ own infighting. Still, this was essentially the 19th century equivalent of last election’s observation that President Obama lost in the polls to a “Generic Republican” but beat any actual opponents. Newspapers of the day suggest voters were not pleased with this attempt to run the proverbial “Generic Whig” against Van Buren, as people realized a vote for their preferred candidate might only end up electing some unwanted Whig rival.
Of course, in this comparison, the Van Buren analogue is Clinton, not Trump. Perhaps the better parallel is 1860, when slavery split the Democratic party. Illinois moderate Stephen Douglas proved unacceptable to southerners, who nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge instead. Meanwhile, anti-secessionists formed the Constitutional Union Party around Tennessee’s John Bell. There was some talk of a coordinated effort among these rival factions to keep Abraham Lincoln from an Electoral College majority and throw the election into the House, but rapid population growth in the North gave Lincoln a comfortable win.
Looking at 1836 and 1860 suggests a few factors that make it likelier for craziness like this to occur: One or both of the main candidates are unusually divisive, the country is unusually polarized, and at least one of the major parties is in disarray. We’ve got all three of those conditions in 2016, and the Republican infighting might actually make this all a tad more plausible. A true 1836 strategy, in which no single Republican tries to win but each tries to convince voters that any Republican is better than Clinton, probably wouldn’t resonate, even allowing for Clinton’s unpopularity among conservatives, as it’s just too much of a loser’s message.
But how about a situation where Cruz just has to convince four states that they’re the country’s last hope against the twin dangers of Trump and Clinton, and Kasich can flatter his fellow Ohioans in the same way? They can also fight each other here, with Kasich telling Ohio that if they don’t vote for him to steal the election, then those western states will let Cruz do it, and vice versa. And before you say what I’ve outlined could never, ever happen, just remember this: It all hinges on the pettiness of Ted Cruz and John Kasich. You know, the guy who just gave that speech and the guy who didn’t attend a convention being held in the state he governs. As ridiculously implausible as all this is, 2016 is the one election year where it doesn’t quite feel impossible.
And if the election does get to the House, that’s when the fun really starts. Each state gets one vote, and it’s hard to imagine a less palatable set of options for a Republican-controlled House than Clinton, Trump, and Cruz, who is openly loathed by his Capitol Hill colleagues. (Kasich might do all right, relatively speaking, but he’d be coming in with the electoral support of just a single state.) As an added wrinkle, the Senate would be in charge of choosing the Vice President, and they are limited to just the top two picks. If the Senate does make a choice while the House deadlocks through Inauguration Day, then Mike Pence or Tim Kaine would be sworn in as Acting President until the mess is sorted out, with either potentially ending up as vice-president for a political opponent once the dust clears.
But it could still get worse! What if neither the House nor the Senate picks a candidate by January 20? Given we’re now into month five of the Senate’s non-consideration of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland—whose name I had to look up to remember what it even was, it’s been so long—it’s absolutely conceivable Congress could reject all possibilities and wait until Section 3 of the 20th Amendment kicks in, which reads: “…the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.” After January 20, Congress could choose whomever they want to be Acting President, with the original candidates kept in a holding pattern indefinitely. At such a point, it feels like it would be more than a little advantageous to be the Speaker of the House, given he would have a huge hand in shaping that unprecedented selection. Given his national stature and the fact the Speaker is next in the line of succession anyway, he might just end up arguing for himself as the best compromise pick.
Well, crap. I certainly didn’t intend to end this with Paul Ryan winning the American Game of Thrones. And yet, here we are…