The name of the website 270towin.com is something of a misnomer. Barack Obama is the candidate who, in fact, does need 270 electoral votes to win. Mitt Romney really only needs a tie. You see, he is virtually guaranteed a win in electoral overtime.
As you know from high school history, if no candidate for president receives a majority of electoral votes in a general election, the contest moves to the House of Representatives. There each state delegation gets a single vote. California would have no more power than Wyoming. Given the current composition of the House, Mitt Romney would have the requisite 26 votes and would become the 45th President of the United States.
The legislative branch has chosen three presidents. Or four, depending on how you look at it. As it turns out, our Congress has done a pretty mediocre job picking presidents: of the four, only Jefferson would win re-election. The others were pretty forgettable: John Quincy Adams rode his pedigree to the White House; Rutherford B. Hayes never had chance and was referred to as “Rutherfraud” more than Mr. President; and Gerald Ford is better remembered via Chevy Chase’s klutzy portrayal more than anything else. More interesting than their terms in office, each instance of a Congressionally-elected President was under unique circumstances.
In 1800, the electoral college rules were different. Each elector could vote for two people. Normally, the candidate with the most votes would be President and the runner-up would be Vice President. The trouble is that the Framers of the Constitution were excellent at (making) history, but pretty poor at math. That year both Jefferson and Aaron Burr got 73 electoral votes, which normally would have been enough to win. They both got it though, and there was no provision for co-Presidents. Jefferson, of course, won the run-off in Congress. Shortly thereafter, the Twelfth Amendment was passed to fix this flaw.
In 1824, there was no majority winner at all. Andrew Jackson received the most electoral votes, but it was a plurality, split with John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay. Once it went to Congress, however, the well-connected Adams won Clay’s support and defeated Jackson and Crawford. Jackson relished his chance for a rematch four years later and beat Adams handily.
In terms of legal nightmares scenarios, not even the 2000 Florida result could hold a hanging chad to 1876. The country had been through a brutalizing decade and a half. The Civil War, the assassination, the impeachment of his successor, and the scandal-ridden Grant administration had left the nation reeling. Certainly, a disputed election was not needed, but it’s what they got.
Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but stood a single electoral vote short. There were still four states to be counted, but even counting them did not prove quite so simple. Oregon had a disqualified elector, who eventually went for Hayes. Fine, three states to go. Well, it so happened that South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida all had disputed results. Each state had two sets of electors who sent two results to Washington. There was no resolution to be had by simple recount. Ultimately, an electoral committee was convened and the Compromise of 1877 was reached. Hayes became president, Reconstruction ended in the South, and Jim Crow began.
Finally, there is 1974, a real outlier in this list. Gerald Ford, was the only president to be elected by the Senate. In the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation after pleading no contest to tax evasion, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to have Ford fill the vacancy. Within a year, Nixon would resign under pressure over Watergate. Ford would lose in 1976 to Jimmy Carter.
With all of those different ways to not clearly elect a president. The nail-biter we might be in for today, should be interesting. For those keeping score tonight who might have a desire for the dramatic, there are a number of different ways that we can reach 269-269. These are just a few.
I will grant you that these scenarios are not particularly likely. New York Times stats Nerd-in-Chief, gives it a 0.1% chance of happening. However, if it does, this long election season will have the last laugh. You see, while Congress picks the President in the event of a tie, the Democrat-controlled Senate picks the VP. This would mean that if Mitt Romney gets his 269 to win, he’d likely do it with Joe Biden as his VP.
***All maps were generated using 270towin.com, which, contrary to the opening sentence is a lovely site with a lovely name.