The Unwon Election

In the first dispatch of this three-part series, we talked about the unbound nature of the majority of electoral college delegates, and how that could matter in a tight race. One of the most common questions I received was how common — or how much precedent — there was in modern times for so-called faithless delegates, who vote their own way, rather than abiding by the results of their state’s popular vote. While there is certainly precedent, this possibility is far more remote than the one this piece focuses on:

It’s possible neither major party candidate wins the 2016 presidential election.

The magic number of electoral college delegates is 270. Without this portion of 538 total delegates — one for each member of the House of Representatives, one for each member of the Senate, and three to represent the District of Columbia — the general election will not result in a winner.

Even for those who understand that the electoral college, and not the popular vote, is what matters, the idea of one candidate making their way to 270 is taken for granted. After all, in a two party system, where all electoral votes are awarded to one candidate or the other, one is mathematically bound to cross this threshold.

That changes when a viable third party candidate is in the race.

Both major party candidates are unpopular to a degree not seen since 1992, when a third party candidate (Ross Perot) was last truly relevant at a national level. As of mid-June, Pew Research Center placed registered voter satisfaction with Trump at 40%, and Clinton at 43%. During Donald Trump’s 75-minute long acceptance speech, where he painted a picture of a post-apocalyptic American hellscape, searches for “third party candidate 2016” increased 10,000%.

Meanwhile, polls place Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson at nearly 15% nationwide, a critical threshold that would result in his inclusion in the upcoming presidential debates. Such exposure would be critical to any third party candidate hoping to emerge, and his appeal would likely include not just conservatives left homeless following the coup of Trumpism within the Republican Party, but also supporters of Bernie Sanders focused on social liberties.

At the same time, Better for America has been working to secure ballot access for a candidate-in-waiting, some white knight candidate willing to step up and represent a middle path between two deeply unpopular candidates. Though they have yet to announce a candidate, they claim one will emerge shortly, in concert with a ballot access initiative spanning the most critical electoral vote states.

It’s possible that Better for America’s efforts might result in an even stronger third party option than Gary Johnson, though until they have a candidate, it’s impossible to say. What is important, regardless of the candidate, is not their national polling strength — aside from the extent to which that may guarantee them a spot in the debates — but rather third party strength in individual states.

Utah is a particularly interesting one to watch. As of July 22nd, Johnson was polling at 26 percent, within the margin of error of Clinton at 27 percent and Trump at 29 percent. A deeply conservative state, no Democratic nominee has won Utah since LBJ in 1964, yet the irreconcilable issues dividing Trumpism and conservatism have made, what would for any other Republican candidate a walk in the park, a three-way race. Johnson is focused on western states like Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. Though these are all small states from an electoral perspective — only Utah (6) and Colorado (9) have more than three to offer — in a tight race, any one of these could be the difference between a candidate reaching the 270 threshold or not.

Polls indicate a Clinton victory is likely at the moment, potentially accompanied by an electoral landslide, but this is far from certain, with so much race left to run for an embattled campaign. Let’s assume a tighter outcome, one that remains reasonable based on party precedent but indicates a true, too-close-to-call scenario:

Even a small state can determine the outcome in a close election.

There’s nothing inherently unreasonable about this map, from conventional wisdom’s standpoint, except that Utah is curiously neither blue nor red. In this case, let’s argue that Johnson pulls ahead, perhaps winning a tight three-way race by even just a few hundred or thousand votes. This would be enough to ensure that neither Clinton nor Trump meet the magic number of 270.

A third party candidate winning just one state can deprive both Clinton and Trump of victory.

Assuming no electors flip — a possibility we discussed last time — or any faithless electors turn only to Johnson, what happens next would be something not seen in the United States since 1824.

(So what happens? That’ll be the topic of the third piece in this series.)