With the Presidential Race Tightening, Let’s Look at That “Tie in the Electoral College” Scenario Again — and Stare at Nevada!

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I published an earlier version of this story on July 29, just as the party conventions closed.  A friend of mine soon afterwards published a (better-written, I’m sure) analysis in the Washington Monthly pointing people towards the same electoral map.  With the polls in the Presidential race recently tightening so much, this seems like a good moment to take a look at it again.

The bottom line is that we really could be looking at an Electoral College tie (or other failure of any candidate to get a majority) this year.  And if that happens, any candidate — Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Gary Johnson — who gets even just one electoral vote, or whatever other number is required to put them into third place — could become President.  All they would need is to get a majority of the votes of the 50 state delegations in the House of Representatives.  (These delegations lean massively Republican, so don’t delude yourself that either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would have a chance.)  The resulting free-for-all — with Big Money interests trying to coerce delegates to vote for a third alternative to Donald and Hillary and for thenfor  representatives to do the same — would make the 2000 race look like a nursery school game of tag by comparison.

Here’s the original story, somewhat edited and then updated:

It’s long been understood that the Electoral College vote could end up without any candidate having a majority of the 538 votes, and people have written about that.  Sometimes this is called an “electoral college tie” — but that’s not strictly true.  All that’s necessary is for no one to reach 270 votes out of the 538.  This could happen because of a 269-269 tie — or it could happen because a third candidate picks up enough electoral voters to block either of the other candidates from a majority (as would be the case if Gary Johnson took Maine and left a 269-265, 268-266, or 267-267 split between Trump and Clinton), or it happen due to a “faithless elector.”

Yes, if either Trump or Clinton won 270-268 — it would be possible for a single elector in that majority to — breaking the law, perhaps, but nevertheless — cast their vote for a third party ticket, or even for Michelle Obama or Gary Johnson.  And then — if Congress or the courts didn’t find a way to squash it — that person would become just as eligible to be selected by the House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting one vote (so that Wyoming gets the same amount of votes as California and a tied state delegation gets no vote at all) as the two major party candidates who had almost but not quite 270.  (Their running mate could not be selected; the Senate chooses between only the top two vote-getters as Vice-President.  Joe Biden would still be able to cast the tie-breaking vote.)  Note that the story linked to up above is incorrect: it doesn’t matter whether the House of Representatives goes overwhelmingly Democratic this year or not, so long as the Republicans hold either a majority of 26 state delegations — or perhaps even simply a majority of those able to cast a vote (i.e., not tied or entirely vacant.)  Congress itself would have to decide on which rule to apply.

This is a perennial (well. perennially a quadrennial) story; I even wrote about it here myself at the beginning of July to explain why Bernie wouldn’t run as a third party candidate.  (Essentially, it would guarantee a Trump victory if he did well enough to hold both candidates below 270 electoral votes.  Remember, if this happens, the next President is definitely a Republican or a Libertarian.)  And in those stories, writers often come up with plausible-seeming scenarios where, if the chips fell just right, we could get an electoral vote tie.

Well, guess what?  Or, don’t guess: just look at the following map, adapted from the predictions at Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com.

The direction in which each state leaned as of the closing day of the 2016 Democratic convention. Light pink and blue indicate likely swing states.

The direction in which each state leaned as of the closing day of the 2016 Democratic convention. Light pink and blue indicate likely swing states.

Each state’s number of electoral votes is highlighted.  The bright blue states are considered safe for Clinton; the bright reddish ones are considered safe for Trump.  (I don’t actually believe that Minnesota, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Oregon or Maine — at least it’s second district, which gets its own single electoral vote — are truly “safe” for Clinton, and I’m not sure what if anything is actually “safe” for Trump, who could crash through a guard rail at any time.  But his “safe states” currently do seem safer than the others.)  The light blue states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado) are “Clinton-held” swing states; the pink states (Nevada, Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Florida) are “Trump-held” swing states.

These projections are taken from Nate Silver’s site as of yesterday.  At that point, every state was leaning in the same direction in each of the three ways that Silver calculates his predictions.  These three ways are: (1) the “now-cast” of where the vote would be expected to go if the election were held today; (2) the “polls-only” model, which simply aggregates the polls for each state; and (3) the “polls-plus” model, which takes into account not only polls but the state of the economy, presidential popularity, and perhaps a little more.  Trump does best in the “now-cast” (#1) and Clinton best in the “polls plus” model (#3), with Clinton prevailing in the “polls only” model (#2).  But the states fundamental direction stays the same in each model: it’s just that in the “now-cast” Clinton safe states turn into swing states and the swing states get even more swingy, and in the “polls-plus” safe Trump states become swingy and his swing-states get closer to flipping.  (In today’s “polls-plus” model, for example, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire switched from pink to blue.  Don’t get used to it; the latter two margins are each half a percent.)

So what’s so interesting?  Well, if things were stay the same as on July 28 within a fairly broad range of conditions — which probably won’t happen, but it was the best estimate for each state as of that date, and it’s still true for models #1 and #2 — then this is what the final map would look like.  Add up all of the electoral votes of the red and pink states.  And then add up all of the electoral votes for the blue and light-blue states.

They both add up to 269.  As of July 28, the best estimate on a state by state basis, not including the correlations of effects in the various races that turn the path of the election, is an Electoral Vote tie.

Back to September 18.  How do things look now?  Well, they look somewhat familiar:

538 Now-Cast, 2016-0918

Taken from fivethirtyeight.com, 11:40 PT on Sept. 18, 2016, for purposes of criticism.

Let’s do Trump’s “pink states” first:  Nevada, a faint check!  Arizona, check!  Iowa, red check!  Ohio, check!  North Carolina, check!  Florida, check!  New Hampshire — not check! — but not by a safe margin.

Now let’s do Hillary’s “light blue” states:  Colorado: a faint check!  Wisconsin, check!  Michigan, check!  Pennsylvania, check!  Virginia, check!  But look at that softening in Maine — which apportions one delegate for each Congressional district as well as two to the statewide winner!  And Rhode Island and Delaware join the “could become a real swing state” group, along with Oregon, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

All those votes in the South that secured Hillary the nomination will have bought her … nothing.  The northeast and norther tier of the industrial midwest, where Sanders did well?  They could easily tip the election to Trump.

One of my arguments recently among Democrats and other lefties has been that people should stop arguing over whether they will vote for Hillary or for Jill Stein!  Everyone should just do what they want: California is going blue either way (unless Stein and Trump both get so far up in the polls that even I feel the need to vote for Hillary just in case — which I would — and if for some reason Hillary lost California there’s no plausible way that that could make the difference in the result, which would already be a Reaganesque slaughter.

If you’re a Hillary partisan who thinks that a Trump victory would destroy civilization, then get the hell out to Nevada and walk precincts for her there, like I did for Obama in 2008.  If you can establish residency there in time to vote — the deadline is October 8, and you have to establish a residence there (could be a temporary rental), stay there through election day, and give up your claim to California residence, although you can recapture it later if you like paying state income taxes —  then so much the better!  (Their U.S. Senate candidate needs you, too!)

If you are a “HILLARY BEATING TRUMP IS EVERYTHING” Democrat, but you don’t focus on Nevada even if it looks like it could determine the Presidency, then stop complaining about people voting for Stein or staying home — because your vote for Hillary in California (or your squeezing out more votes for Hillary in Nevada by browbeating millennials and other Sandersnistas, or whatever you are pleased to imagine is productive) simply will not matter.  If the national election is close, though, then Nevada will!

(I know that Republicans are reading this as well and wondering if they should relocate — well, that’s publication for you!  Everyone can see it!  Doesn’t that give Democrats reading this more motivation, though?)

Arguments among Californians about our Presidential voting preferences are wasting everyone’s time — and if that’s what you’re doing right now it shows that you don’t really care that much about the result.  If you claim to be all about the Presidential race to the expense of everything else — then right now you are on the wrong side of the mountains!


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)