Imagine that it’s November 6th, 2024 and Americans nationwide are waking up to very unsettling news: neither candidate has hit the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, meaning the president must be chosen by the House of Representatives in a contingent election the following year. For most voters, it’s confusing and alarming procedural news, further reducing their confidence in American political institutions and the power of their own vote. For the elected representatives holding the country’s fate in their hands, however, it’s nothing short of a nightmare.
Is this a far-fetched scenario? Not exactly.
While a tied election is unlikely, it isn’t out of the question. For example, if Democrats were to make gains in the Sun Belt while losing ground with working-class whites, mirroring the shifts observed in 2016, they could theoretically win North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona while simultaneously losing Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada.
In addition to a pure 269–269 tie, there are two factors that could force a contingent election in the House: a strong third party candidate or faithless electors.
In the first scenario, a candidate like Joe Manchin, running under No Labels, would have to win enough electoral votes to deny either Trump or Biden a majority. In the second, either candidate would have to win narrowly only to fall below 270 electoral votes in the end thanks to faithless electors voting for other minor candidates.
The first scenario is arguably less probable than a pure tie. None of the strong recent third party candidates (e.g., Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Gary Johnson) has managed to win a state in a presidential election. Their shortcomings can be attributed to diffuse bases of support that contrasted sharply against the regionalized bases of previous segregationist third party candidates who did manage to win electoral votes like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. We don’t see why a potential No Labels candidate like Manchin would fare better than someone like Perot did — even in a race against two politicians as unpopular as Trump and Biden.
The second scenario is somewhat more realistic, but most state legislatures have passed laws binding electors to vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in their respective states. This means the influence of faithless electors is somewhat limited, which is important given that there were seven defections in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election.
Regardless of cause, the possibility of both major party nominees falling short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win makes holding control of U.S. House delegations in the states critical for both parties. This is because the party controlling the majority of delegations across the 50 states could effectively elect the president in a contingent election — regardless of whether their preferred candidate won the popular vote or even a plurality of electoral votes.
A party controls a state’s U.S. House delegation if the majority of the state’s representatives affiliate with that party. Importantly, the party controlling the majority of delegations may be materially different from the party that controls the House of Representatives overall. Following the 2018 elections, for instance, Republicans controlled 26 out of the 50 House delegations, despite Democrats having a 235–199 House majority.
Control of the presidency has been thrown to the House before. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won pluralities of the electoral and popular votes but failed to win an outright majority, triggering a contingent election which he lost. His supporters chalked his defeat up to a “corrupt bargain” between House Speaker Henry Clay and eventual winner John Quincy Adams, reducing the institutional legitimacy of both Congress and constitutional procedures in the eyes of many Americans.
To understand how a contingent election for president would work today, we’ve laid out the process in a series of chronological steps summarizing the 12th amendment framework. A helpful guide from the Congressional Research Service provides more detailed information.
Internal voting among delegations to determine which candidate would win their respective states would be incredibly partisan in our polarized era. Moderate lawmakers from at-large districts or those with the ability to break delegation deadlocks could face immense pressure from both sides of the aisle to give one candidate the edge over the other, but it is difficult to envision them crossing the aisle on a matter that is as partisan as it is monumental.
The State of the House Delegations
Since 2022, Republicans control 26 House delegations while Democrats control 22. Democrats have not controlled a majority of these since 2008, when they had 257 House seats. To get a sense of the impact individual House races could have on a contingent election, we created realistic scenarios for both parties in terms of House delegations that they could conceivably gain if 2024 goes their way.
Keep in mind that these are purely hypothetical scenarios contingent on predicted mid-decade redistricting. It is too early to say whether the Democratic or Republican scenario is more likely. In the unlikely event of a tied presidential election, which would suggest a close popular vote and little change in House composition, the mean of the two scenarios would probably be closest to the final outcome.
Potential Democratic Delegation Flips
On a good Democratic night, Republicans could lose AZ-01 and AZ-06, both of which were closely contested in 2022, flipping the delegation from 6–3 R to 5–4 D. They could also capitalize on Wisconsin’s mid-decade redistricting, a near certainty now that liberals control the state supreme court, to flip redrawn versions of WI-01 and WI-03. Finally, Democrats could flip MT-01, depending on Jon Tester’s coattails and whether incumbent Ryan Zinke underperforms again.
Assuming they hold all their other delegations, Democrats would control majorities in 23 states, with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Montana tied. In this scenario, Republicans would control 24. Democrats would still fall short of an outright majority of House delegations due in part to gerrymanders in Georgia and Texas, along with an expected redraw in North Carolina, limiting their ability to compete for enough competitive districts in each state to flip delegations. However, Republicans would not control an outright majority either, meaning that there would have to be defections of some kind from either party in order to elect a president, as a candidate must secure a majority of state delegations to win.
Potential Republican Delegation Flips
On a good Republican night, Trump-district Democrats Mary Peltola (AK-AL) and Jared Golden (ME-02) could lose re-election, flipping Alaska and tying Maine’s delegation. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, the GOP could manage to flip both delegations. North Carolina redistricting, which is expected to net the GOP two to three additional seats, would complete the story. In this scenario, the GOP would end up controlling 30 delegations compared to the Democrats’ 18, giving them a comfortable advantage in the event that the House is needed to decide the Presidency.
Aggregating our current House ratings provides a glimpse into what the mean of our two scenarios might look like. Four delegations are currently in the Tossup category. In Michigan, the highly-competitive 7th district is expected to host a competitive race, with incumbent Elissa Slotkin retiring to run for Senate. A Republican victory would flip control of the delegation.
In Pennsylvania, the GOP likewise needs to gain just one seat to flip control of the delegation. Their top targets are the 7th and 8th districts, held by Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright, respectively.
Minnesota remains in the Tossup category despite having no Tossup House races because the delegation is already tied, and we expect it to stay that way. The GOP came up short in its only feasible target, the Biden-won 2nd district, in 2022 and it currently remains a difficult carry for the GOP.
North Carolina is only in the Tossup category because of its current maps, under which the marginal 13th district has the power to sway control of the tied delegation. As we mentioned, though, mid-decade redistricting is expected to advantage Republicans.
As our House ratings currently stand, the Republicans control House delegations in 25 states compared to the Democrats 20, with two tied delegations and three rated as Tossups. In other words, if nothing else were to change, the GOP would only need to gain one delegation in the Tossup category to have the majority necessary to elect Trump president in a contingent election.
While North Carolina alone could fill that role after it redraws its maps, Wisconsin’s mid-decade redistricting would neutralize it — bringing Republicans back down to 25 and leaving any contingent election math bitterly divided.
*Wisconsin’s delegation is rated Safe R because the ratings above are based on our current House ratings, which will be updated following mid-decade redistricting*