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Despite winning more seats than at any time since Watergate, Democrats still would be at a disadvantage if none of the 2020 presidential candidates won an Electoral College majority.
The chances that the 2020 election would be thrown to the House of Representatives are small, but it is far from an implausible scenario. If it happened, especially given distrust of the Electoral College and even of the Senate, such an outcome likely would drive liberals absolutely berserk.
First, some background: In their anti-majoritarian zeal, the founders left us with a presidential electoral system that is not truly a single election at all but 50 individual state elections. Each state casts votes in the Electoral College, with the number of votes determined by each state’s population.
To win the election, a candidate must amass at least 270 votes in the Electoral College. Although it has not happened in more than a century, failure to do so triggers a vote in the House.
Could it happen in 2020? Given the difficulty for third-party candidates to win states, the likeliest trigger scenario would be that Trump and his Democratic opponent tie with 269 votes. The odds are better than you might think.
It would require Trump to win all the states he won in 2016 except for Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and the 2nd Congressional District in Maine.
That would give Trump and his Democratic opponent 269 Electoral College votes each. Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin all went narrowly for Trump in 2016. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had not voted Republican in a presidential race since 1988, and Iowa had done so only once since then prior to 2016.
Or, perhaps Trump loses Michigan but wins Iowa, Colorado and gets a vote from the 2nd District in Maine. That would also result in a 269-269 tie. A tie also would result from Trump winning his 2016 states except for Michigan and Wisconsin, and also losing Arizona.
So what? Surely, now that the Democrats control the House by a healthy margin, a tie would go to the Democratic challenger.
Under the Constitution, each state delegation — not individual members — gets one vote. That means the single representative from Wyoming has as much influence as the 53 representatives from California put together.
So, despite a majority of anywhere between 27 and 39 seats depending on the outcome of races still in dispute — Democrats still would fall short. Taking results of the election into account, Republicans will have the majority in 26 states, while Democrats will be the majority in 22. Pennsylvania and Michigan, meanwhile, will be evenly divided.
Of course, an Electoral College tie would not be settled in the House until the next Congress elected in November 2020 and seated the following January. So there still is a chance Democrats could wrest the majority from Republicans in closely divided states like Florida and Wisconsin to tip the balance.
And there is no guarantee that a candidate would win all of the delegations where his party had a majority. Representatives might feel compelled to vote the way their states or districts did in the election.
But Democrats would be at a disadvantage. The Democrats’ problem is the same one that makes it harder for them to win the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote. It’s the same reason they won the House majority this month but fell short in the Senate.
The party’s support is concentrated in a handful of states and in densely populated metropolitan areas. Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in the 2016 election, won by huge margins in the cities and in states like California and New York. But winning by 30 percentage points did not yield her any more Electoral College votes than if she won by 3 points.
Trump, on the other hand, won a string of states by narrow margins because his support was more efficiently distributed.
The same phenomenon was at work in the House races. While Democrats won the majority, all those extra seats that they won in California, New York and New Jersey — where they already had congressional majorities — did them no good in the event the House needs to pick the president.
The same goes for pickups in deep red states like Texas and Oklahoma.