Tied Presidential elections have been the stuff of awful political novels with absurd plotlines and one-dimensional characters. President Trump’s 2016 map and his political strategy combine to create the plausible (if unlikely) scenario for a tie. But, tie or not, the 2020 election looks like it will be very close.
For most of the history of the Republic all states were winner-take-all for their electoral votes. Even close elections yielded definitive Electoral College victories. Since the modern two-party system established itself, only two elections ended with the candidates less than 20 electoral votes apart (1876 and 2004). Just two states, Maine and Nebraska, allow their electoral votes to be split by congressional district. Nebraska split its votes for the first time in over 25 years in 2008 and Maine split its votes in 2016 for the first time in over 40 years.
Now that both states have individual districts in play, the possibilities of a tie have increased significantly. According to 270towin.com, there are 64 plausible electoral tie combinations where the 2016 candidates were within five percentage points (11 states and Nebraska-2).
The closest calls in 2016 were: Michigan for Trump, 0.23% margin; New Hampshire for Clinton, 0.37%; Pennsylvania for Trump, 0.72%; Wisconsin for Trump, 0.79%; and Nebraska-2, 2.24%. Four other states were within 3%, Arizona for Trump and Nevada, Minnesota, Maine (at-large) for Clinton.
If we assume no rogue electors (Trump lost two Republicans and Clinton lost five Democratic electors) Trump can win even if he loses Michigan and Pennsylvania. Losing those two states puts him at exactly 270 votes. However, if he loses Nebraska-2 there would be a tie and the election would be decided by the House or Representatives.
Voting for President is not one member one votes, instead each state gets one vote. That’s right, Wyoming and California each get a single vote and majority wins. Even though Democrats control the House 235-199 with three vacancies, Republicans control 25 state delegations and the Democrats control 24. Michigan is tied. The Democrats’ control of the Pennsylvania delegation is tenuous, based on a vacancy in a heavily Republican district. If that seat remains Republican, then the split would be 25-23 with two tied delegations.
Can the GOP pick up one more delegation? They would need to break ties in Michigan or Pennsylvania or flip a seat in either Arizona or Colorado. The Democrats would need to gain seats in both Michigan and Pennsylvania and pick off a one-vote difference GOP-held delegation. While seven states have just one Member of Congress, only one of those states, Montana, has a potentially competitive race.
Republicans have the easier task. Five Democratic seats that could give the GOP a delegation majority are in districts that generically favor Republicans, according to The Cook Political Report. Michigan-8 and Michigan-11 are rated R+4; Pennsylvania-17 is R+3 and Pennsylvania-8 is R+1; Arizona-1 is R+2. The best pick-up chance in Colorado is the 6th District (D+2). Cook rates Michigan-8 as a “Tossup” with Michigan-11 and Pennsylvania-8 as “Lean Democratic.”
Democrats have a much tougher journey. They need to have a net gain of three delegations with much less favorable geography. Four states offer one-seat chances to flip but no district is rated by Cook as generically favoring the Democrats. Cook does rate two Pennsylvania GOP seats and one Florida seat as “Lean Republican” with one Michigan seat and the Montana seat as “Likely Republican.” And the Democrats still need to defend Maine-2, rated as a tossup. If the Maine seat returns to the GOP fold, Maine becomes a split delegation, increasing the chances of no majority in the House.
What happens in a tie in the House? According to the Twelfth Amendment, the Vice-President would take office as President. In an electoral tie, Vice-President is chosen by majority vote in the Senate. Republicans control the Senate 53-45 with two independents caucusing with the Democrats. In 2020 Republicans have to defend 22 seats, while Democrats only have to defend 12 seats. But Republicans have only three seats considered at risk: Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Democrats have the unenviable task of trying to hold on to Alabama.
In the end, it is not likely that there will be an Electoral College tie. But the possibility is stronger than ever. As maddening as it was for the Democrats to lose in 2000 and 2016, consider the possibility that the Democratic Party could gain a majority of the popular vote, a majority in the House and still lose the Presidency.