The 2016 presidential election is not far off, and with all the wild unpredictability and volatility of the race so far, including much greater fluctuations in the polls than seen in 2012, it's got a lot of people wondering about rare, peculiar, potentially disruptive outcomes. For example: could nobody get to 270 in the electoral college? Is it at all possible that the 2016 race could end with neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton winning the majority of electors they need to claim the presidency?
The answer, sad to say for anyone who's hoping for a dose of stability and relative calm starting on November 9th, is yes. It's not likely by any stretch of the imagination, but there is an entirely foreseeable path this year for both candidates to fall short of the mark they need. And if that remote possibility were to come true? American electoral politics would stay stressful for a good long while, and you might not be thrilled with what happens next.
First things first, let's envision an electoral map in which this could actually, feasibly happen. There's no spinning the fact that Clinton is a decisive favorite right now, according to both state and national polling, and her safe states alone place her tantalizingly close to the decisive 270 electors she needs. But let's imagine that the closely fought states that typically go Republican end up breaking for Trump on election day, as well as Ohio, where he's been competitive, and where non-Obama Democrats haven't fared so well in recent years.
If Trump managed to win Minnesota, where he currently trails Clinton by about four points (with a recent Gravis poll finding a tie), held the southeast from North Carolina on down, and hung on in Arizona? Basically, if all the dominoes fell the right way (or wrong way, depending on your perspective), this thing could end up all boiling down to the state of Utah, with the difference between a Clinton win and a constitutional crisis hanging in the balance. In the map above, only a Clinton win in Utah would avert the electoral college deadlock ― a win by Trump, or a win by conservative candidate Evan McMullin, who's seriously challenging to take the state, would only ensure that nobody would cross 270.
So, what would happen then? If you're a Clinton supporter, it could be your worst nightmare. If neither candidate makes it to 270, then the House of Representatives picks the next president. Each state's delegation would vote amongst itself to determine who wins the single vote of the entire state, and the candidate who claims at least 26 states wins out. In other words, if a state has more Republican representatives than Democrats, that state will almost surely go to Trump.
Furthermore, because each state only gets one vote, mega-populous states like California ― a Democratic stronghold home to more than 38 million ― are reduced to the same voting power as deep-red states like Wyoming, home to fewer than one million.
As it stands now, the GOP holds the lion's share of the representatives in 30 states, although it wouldn't be the current Congress that would make the crucial vote, but the new one which will be sworn in come January 3rd. As a result, the outcome of the presidential election would depend on whether or not the Democrats reclaimed the House in down-ballot races.
But that's an unlikely (if not impossible) feat under any circumstance in which Democratic voters failed to elect Clinton outright. In other words, if neither candidate crosses the finish line at 270 electoral votes or above, the result will almost certainly be a Trump presidency, as brought to you by House Republicans. That is, barring some kind of mass exodus in favor of McMullin, but that would be a major enough defiance of the popular will that it would probably spur a huge amount of unrest.
In short, when the night of November 8th rolls around, hopefully the country gets a decisive result that does away with this chaotic, undeniably inflammatory scenario. But until that day comes, it'll hang in the air as a very remote, yet also very worrisome possibility.