There has been a lot written about the fact that two out of the last three presidential elections put the “popular loser’ into the White House. Gore had more than a half-million more votes than “W,” and Hillary received more than three million more votes than Trump.
But there are a lot of other things in our system that don’t seem quite right.
One is presidential succession. In the 1970s, Republican Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president and Republican Richard Nixon resigned as president. If it were not for Gerald Ford, the presidency would have fallen to Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert. That would have been seen as a coup by Democrats.
There’s another case that is similar. We have 538 Electoral College electors. That’s an even number, so it’s entirely possible that an election could end in a tie. How? Let’s do an example.
The Democrat could win California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, DC, and Vermont.
The Republican could win Texas, Florida, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, South Carolina, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
That would give each side 269 Electoral Votes—and a tie.
In that case, the election would be thrown into the House, where Representatives would choose the next president. Currently, Democrats control the House, so one would expect that they would pick their party’s candidate. But that would be too normal. In an additional quirk, each State gets only one vote, so the majority of each State would vote with their party. Right now, 26 States have a majority of Republican members, and 22 States have a majority of Democratic members (Pennsylvania and Michigan are tied, so have no vote at all). Thus, even though Democrats comfortably control the house, they’d lose this vote to the Republicans.
A similar case is playing out right now in Kentucky. In this month’s election, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear beat Republican incumbent Governor Matt Bevin by about 5,000 votes. Bevin has refused to concede, and has asked for a “recanvass.” That’s not really a recount. It’s just a review of the votes, which has never shown much if any change from the original count. So why is Bevin doing this?
Kentucky law allows an election to be contested in the legislature. The legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, so one would expect that he would win, as George Bush won in the Supreme Court in 2000. However, Donald Trump, who campaigned for Bevin is now disavowing him.
Surprisingly, so has US Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for re-election next year. One would think he’d be pushing for a Republican governor in his own state, but there’s bad blood. Bevin had previously challenged McConnell for McConnell’s seat.
More importantly, the Republican legislature has never warmed to Bevin, who has been unpredictable as governor.
Another quirk is the presidential impeachment and conviction process. Republicans have been firm in their defense of Trump, both because Trump has such solid rank-and-file support, but also because Trump is known for holding a grudge, and punishing anyone who stands in his way. For instance, Trump has refused to support former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is trying to regain his Senate seat. Why? Because although Sessions was the first Senator to endorse Trump in 2016, and did everything Trump wanted as Attorney General,
Sessions felt that he should recuse himself from the Mueller investigation.
Because of the pressure on Republican Senators, they are expected to vote automatically to refuse to remove Trump after he is impeached in the House.
But here’s another quirk: The Senate could hold a secret ballot.
In that case, many Republican Senators who dislike the manipulation and outright pressure by Trump may have the last say.
According to current Senate procedure, McConnell will still need a simple majority—51 of the 53 Senate Republicans—to support any resolution outlining rules governing the trial. That means that if only three Republican senators were to break from the caucus, they could block any rule they didn’t like. (Vice President Mike Pence can’t break ties in impeachment matters.) Those three senators, in turn, could demand a secret ballot and condition their approval of the rest of the rules on getting one. . .
Five sitting Republican senators have already announced their retirements; four of those are in their mid-70s or older and will never run for office again. They might well be willing to demand secrecy in order to give cover to their colleagues who would like to convict Trump but are afraid to do so because of politics in their home districts. There are also 10 Republican senators who aren’t up for reelection until 2024 and who might figure Trumpism will be irrelevant by then. Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski have been the most vocal Republicans in expressing concerns about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine. Other GOP senators have recently softened in their defense of him, as well—all before the House has held any public hearings.
Some think new evidence will come to light that will change the public mood and give Senators a chance to vote freely. In that case, it would be like 1974 all over again, when Richard Nixon lost nearly all GOP support.
The only way this dynamic changes is if the entire Republican Party apparatus (not just politicians, but also media commentators and surrogates) turns on Trump en masse. But for this to happen, somebody still has to speak up first, and others have to follow. But it could happen. Let’s use political scientist Timur Kuran’s classic work, “Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification,” as a guide to understanding major political transformations. He argues that political regimes can persist despite being unpopular, which is why a government overthrow, when it does come, can often seem so sudden. . .
If there is a Republican cascade against Trump, in retrospect, it will look inevitable, as if the steady drip of revelations and testimony was always destined to reach that final dramatic tipping point. But a note to future historians: As of this moment, it does not look inevitable at all.
Aside from being shielded from Trump and his supporters, a secret ballot would allow Republican Senators to eliminate the “loose cannon” approach of Trump, and elevate one of their own—Vice President Mike Pence—to the top job. Pence is more popular than Trump, and would likely benefit from public reaction to impeachment, as Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton did. Impeachment and removal would probably assure that Republicans keep the presidency and Senate, and would also likely help them in the House.
We previously noted surprises in American politics, including the 2016 election of Trump, itself.
It’s probably a good idea to expect the unexpected.