“A strong independent presidential candidate would be a nightmare”

Must-read @NormOrnstein in WaPo:

One of the most enduring themes in U.S. presidential politics is the fantasy of a knight in shining armor emerging to vanquish pretenders on both sides and lead the country to a world free from polarization, pandering and partisan manipulation. Actually, it is more a nightmare than a fantasy — and it is playing out this election cycle in ways that could be dangerous and deleterious….

But what would that mean in practice? For an independent candidate, at best, it would mean three candidates splitting the popular vote, probably roughly a third apiece, with the independent edging out the others with perhaps 35 percent. But that would mean little for the outcome. Presidential contests are decided by electoral votes. An independent might well secure some electoral votes, but in such a race, no candidate would come close to the majority of 270 required, under the Constitution, for victory.

What then? The Constitution says that if no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, the election moves to the House of Representatives, among the top three electoral vote-getters. There is a twist: House members do not vote individually but by state, a majority of which are required to select the president. Currently, 33 states have House delegations that are majority-Republican; three are evenly split; and Democrats control 14. There are no independents — zero, nada — in the House. The numbers, of course, could change in the fall elections, but the chances of having any states controlled by independents, indeed of having any independents at all in the House, are close to nil. And given the margins of control in most states, the dominance of majority-Republican delegations isn’t likely to change.

The states themselves would have to caucus individually to determine how their votes would be cast. Members might vote for the winner of the popular vote, or the winner of the vote in their own districts, or the winner of the vote in their states, or based on partisan loyalty. Multiple ballots could be required. But the odds would be great that, in the end, the House would choose the candidate whose party controlled the most delegations.

Whatever the outcome — an independent ultimately elected president but without a single lawmaker with any attachment to him or her; or a partisan, probably a Republican, chosen primarily because of the partisan tilt of gerrymandered districts — it would not be healthy for the country. A president elected this way would limp into office lacking legitimacy via a process ripe for logrolling and corrupt bargaining. (Read the history of the1824 election, for example.)


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