If Barack Obama and John McCain both get 269 electoral votes on election day, the election goes into the House of Representatives. Rather than an up-down vote, though, which would clearly favor Obama, it is instead done by statewide delegation wherein each state gets one vote, which would favor McCain since he is likely to win more states than Obama (Bush won 30 states in 2000 and 31 in 2004, if I recall) because the unpopulated rural states trend Republican.
So I went to Politics1 and took a look at the delegations, and the likely winner in such an event is… Barack Obama. Despite the fact that Republicans typically win more states in presidential elections, only one Gore/Kerry state has a Republican congressional delegation (Michigan) whereas seven Bush states have Democratic delegations (Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, North Caroline, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia) and the two states with split delegations (Arizona and Kansas) are Bush states.
In order to pull it off, McCain would need to get the split delegations and flip four delegations while preventing Obama from flipping any.
The most likely scenario for a tie has the 2000 electoral map except with Nevada and New Hampshire going to Obama. With this electoral map in mind, there are eight states where the Democrats have only a margin of one vote, so McCain would need to change the minds of congressmen in six of those eight states states (which are Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia) or turn two of the tied states (AZ and KS). McCain is likely to win the Dakotas and West Virginia by a fair margin, though there is only one congressperson in each Dakota to flip (WV has three so he would have two there) so it would depend heavily on the personalities involved. Indiana is another state that it’s likely that McCain would win handily and there are five Democratic congressmen there. North Carolina and Tennessee are more likely to be closer in a tight race (and Nevada and Colorado extremely close) and without a clear victory in the state it seems less likely that they will be able to play the “vote your state/district” card, though if Obama’s vote is heavily concentrated in urban districts and McCain is able to clearly win the suburban and rural ones he might have a shot as there are more Democratic congresspeople to pick from.
If McCain were able to flip eight of the ten states (and/or gain eight by pulling over more than one congressman from Arkansas or Mississippi), the election would be his. If he falls short of eightstates, though, Obama can get the election back by flipping New Mexico (by persuading one congressman), Nevada (one congressman), and Michigan (two). New Mexico has an open district that is ripe for a Dem pickup and Obama may have that delegation anyway (Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming appear to be other cases where the delegation may flip, though neither seems extremely likely). There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of volatility in Michigan and unless Nevada changes congressionally it seems unlikely that he would be able to flip a congressperson since he’s only likely to win one of the three congressional districts even if he wins what would likely be a tight race. If McCain flips seven states, Obama would only need New Mexico.
It seems extremely unlikely that McCain would be able to pull off this feat absent some mitigating circumstance such as a huge popular vote victory or substantial victories in all the right districts. If the GOP controlled congress they could convince some Democratic congresspeople to change parties to be with the majority, though it seems unlikely that any would change to be a part of the minority and it seems unlikely that they would be able to remain in their political party if they chose the other guy for president. Even more unlikely that they would do so what would functionally keep the first black president from obtaining office (one of those things that perhaps shouldn’t matter, but will).
It’s actually difficult to imagine any scenario in which a not-insignificant minority are satisfied with the result. In the event of an Obama presidency, we’d be able to look forward to eight years of people saying that he stole it by getting the votes of congresspeople bucking the popular vote in their state. If McCain wins, he will be considered as having done so by making ugly backroom deals. It even gets further complicated by Kansas and Arizona, which could allow for Obama to have more delegations than McCain (25 to 24 or 25 to 23) but still not enough to claim the presidency and the victor (Obama, likely) will only have won because the other side (McCain, likely) did “the honorable thing” by dropping out of a race that they likely couldn’t win (I can see no other way either of these candidates would drop out… Gore, Kerry, and Clinton only dropped out when they had exhausted all other options and they are still varying degrees of martyrs for having done so).
One of the other larger results of such an event would be the reconsideration of priorities among voters in heavily red states. Over the last decade or two voters in the northeast have decided that it’s more important to have a Democrat in office than it is to have a liberal Republican and one by one the Republican congresspeople in the northeast have been losing which is one reason why there are so few Blue States with Republican delegations compared to the inverse. Conservative voters in the south and mountain west have not yet come to that conclusion and don’t have a problem electing Democrats as long as it is “their kind of Democrat”. Watching their kind of Democrat put Barack Obama into office may result in southern voters viewing party label as more important and could ultimately hurt the Democrats in the House and Senate over the longer term.
Below the fold is a list of states under their congressional delegations:
In states that could potentially be in dispute, I put the congressional delegation count in parenthesis. An asterisk denotes a state that under this scenario went for the other candidate.
New Mexico* (2-1)
New Hampshire (2-0)
North Carolina* (7-6)
North Dakota* (1-0)
South Dakota* (1-0)
West Virginia* (2-1)
Arizona (4-4) -Republican
Kansas (2-2) -Republican