Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Old College Tie

Peter Jackson, Senior Writer September 28th, 2004

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Nobody could have predicted the political circus that ensued on Nov. 8, 2000. With Florida’s 25 electoral votes hanging in the balance, a controversial Supreme Court decision ended the 36-day battle for control of the White House. Of all the close elections in the last century, only the 2000 election produced a president with an Electoral College majority but without a popular vote plurality.

If the election were held today, the Crystal Ball would give George W. Bush another narrow win in the Electoral College with 284 votes. However, Election Day is still 41 days away and Thursday’s debate in Miami is a significant milestone on the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Much can change between now and Nov. 2, and the end result could be an Electoral College tie making the turmoil of 2000 fade from the memory of this highly polarized electorate.

Americans like to see a decisive winner and a loser. Sure, when it comes to a Little League game, “everybody is a winner!” But when the stakes are high, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. Just two years ago the nation was completely confused when the Major League Baseball All-Star Game ended after 11 innings in a 7-7 tie. Fans chanted “re-fund” and “let them play” while booing and hurling cups, foam fingers, and anything else they could find onto the field. Bush and Kerry won’t be playing stickball to a packed house at Miller Park this November, but if the two are deadlocked at the end of the night, the reaction might be the same.

Only once in American history has the Electoral College tied. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson once again challenged John Adams for the presidency and beat him 73 to 65 electoral votes. However, prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, electors did not cast their votes for a two-person ticket. While the electors intended to cast their votes for Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president, they by giving both men 73 votes, the election was sent to the House of Representatives. As the constitution prescribed, the House voted for the winner, with each state’s delegation receiving one vote. After 36 ballots and numerous attempts by both the Federalists and Burr to steal the presidency, Jefferson finally prevailed.

Passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804–following the Jefferson-Burr debacle–provides that if George W. Bush and John Kerry split the electoral vote 269 to 269 this November, the process would be somewhat different. Each state delegation in the House of Representatives would cast one vote for president, and each Senator would cast one vote for vice president. There can be no ties in either house–the president of the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney, does not get a vote. The newly-elected Congress, therefore would vote until both a president and vice-president had been selected.

In an Electoral College tie, President Bush would easily win reelection in the House because Republican Red states solidly outnumber Democratic Blue states. And, with the Senate electing the vice president, there is a distinct possibility that Democrat John Edwards could be elected to serve alongside Bush. The newly-elected Senate–just as in the House–casts the votes, not the lame-duck Congress. The battle for control of the upper chamber of Congress is already neck-and-neck, and with a close presidential race at the top of the ballot, Democrats might pick up two seats, giving them a 51-49 majority with Independent Jim Jeffords. If Democrats only gain one seat in November, a 50-50 tie would cause a very divisive battle for the vice presidency. But just as in 2000, Republican George W. Bush could win the presidency without winning the popular vote. And just as in 2000, there could be another call from the electorate to dismantle the Electoral College in favor of a truly national election.

As things stand today, an Electoral College tie is unlikely. Not since the late Nineteenth Century has America witnessed back-to-back, photo-finish presidential elections. And, unless John Kerry can gain some momentum coming out of the first presidential debate–when television ratings are the highest–it will take an unforeseen political development to bring these two campaigns within spitting distance of one another. But, here are the five most likely paths to an unlikely scenario: the Electoral College tie.

Assuming Bush carries all of the states he won in 2000, and Kerry wins all of Gore’s states:

These are only five of the many Electoral College tie scenarios possible this November. Take a look at the Crystal Ball Electoral College Calculator and map out your own outlook for 2004. This election has all the makings of a nail-bitter. These scenarios may look all the more ridiculous on Friday morning, or they may seem just a bit more plausible.