Thoughts on Election Doomsday Scenarios

On the cusp of a natural disaster created by two powerful and opposing forces (namely a tropical cyclone and arctic air from Canada), it is ironic to see talk increase of potential doomsday or nightmare scenarios for the Presidential election. Human beings (and the media in particular) have always had a fascination with unlikely yet consequential events (as opposed to covering the consequential events that do occur), and so it is not surprising to see contemplation of ‘what if’ scenarios grow.

In a column on New York Magazine’s website on October 26, John Heilemann lays out four scenarios that he regards as scenarios that could “trigger a national political meltdown” in which one side or the other “decries the election result as illegitimate.” He presents them in order of being more likely to occur:  a narrow Romney victory, a Romney popular vote victory but an Obama electoral victory, a major recount situation, and a tie in the electoral college. Mr. Heilemann looks at these potential futures through (blue) tinted lenses., however. What follows are some thoughts regarding Mr. Heilemann’s conclusions.

1) Only a narrow Romney victory could truly be considered illegitimate.

Mr. Heilemann focuses on a narrow Romney victory because, as he believes, such a situation would have to be the product of voter suppression due to new voting reform and voting ID laws pushed by Republicans. Undoubtedly, a narrow victory by the President would only be the product of hard work and a winning agenda, after all. Republicans can only win using scare tactics. This continues the overall trend of laying blame on voting reforms to explain the weaker electoral standing of the Democratic party.

One would believe that a narrow victory by either candidate in this polarized election would generate outrage by the losing side. That by itself is not unexpected, and it has happened before. Would it truly amount to a nightmare scenario, however? Such an outcome would likely only occur if the election result is exceedingly close both nationally and at the State level. One only has to be reminded of the protests over the 2004 result in Ohio or the outrage following the 2000 recount situation to see just how far it would go. Even after 2000, however, George W. Bush was accepted as the President of the United States. The protests over Ohio were noticeably limited because of Bush’s popular vote victory despite Ohio being close (though not as close as some would believe).

2) The President is apparently weaker nationally because Southerners and people in Appalachia dislike him so much.

In presenting the scenario of Mitt Romney winning the popular vote while the President wins in the electoral college, Mr. Heilemann goes out of his way to explain such a situation. He presents as fact that the President is only weak nationally because of his lower voting pull in the South and Appalachia. While this writer has no doubt some States in the South and Appalachia will go for Mitt Romney by very large margins, the idea that the President has not really lost much electoral support elsewhere is simply unfounded. This fits in with the narrative, however, that Republicans and conservatives have little appeal outside of the South. The fact that some polling consistently predicts large Democratic turnout despite evidence to the contrary seems to give this argument legs it should not have.

The more likely (and ignored) reason that this situation would approach nightmarish levels is that we would have an incumbent President being elected by the bare minimum necessary and with less support from the voting population. George W. Bush was never an incumbent. Such a situation has not occurred in our modern political history, but I have a feeling Mr. Heilemann would rather not contemplate the consequences of that perspective.  Better to blame it on Southerners and other racists, apparently.

Should this scenario play out, will all those who decried the ‘will of the people’ being ignored in 2000 stand up to support Mitt Romney? Probably not worth waiting to see.

3) A recount scenario is probably the more likely ‘nightmare’ scenario

A situation where we find ourselves awaiting recounts in a State or States that would decide the election is probably the most likely ‘nightmare’ situation if for no other reason than it has happened before. We have no idea of knowing, however, whether the outcome in any State will truly be close enough to warrant a recount like Florida in 2000. Ohio could turn out to be rather close, or it could be less close than many expect. I remember the disappointment of some in 2004 when Florida was called sooner than they expected (Bush’s margin ended up being +5%). Funny things can happen when votes are actually cast. History suggests that the chances of this playing out are still small, however.

4) A tie in the electoral college is apparently the most illegitimate outcome imaginable

The Constitution went into effect in 1789. The rules regarding the election of the President have been effectively changed only once (the 12th amendment in 1804. The document is fairly explicit on how a tie in the electoral college is remedied. It has not occurred in over 200 years of Presidential elections (and then only when multiple candidates of significant support were running). Such an outcome is the most unlikely of all.

It’s also, ironically, the most clear cut doomsday scenario. We know who the President would probably be based on the breakdown of delegations in the House of Representatives – Mitt Romney. The Senate would be entitled to pick the Vice President, which nominally could be Joe Biden, though Democratic senators are not obligated to vote for him. The Republic would go on regardless.

The interesting thing to  note is just how illegitimate Mr. Heilemann considers this outcome. After all, how dare the Presidency be decided based on a small state like Wyoming having equal weight as a State like New York? It would, in his opinion, cause millions to see our country as a “superrich banana republic.” Other nations routinely have governments that effectively have the support of only a plurality of the electorate, but they are not considered banana republics. Mr. Heilemann also calls the process unprecedented despite it being anything but unprecedented. Perhaps Mr. Heilemann should be reminded that the United States is a union of States.

One could always imagine a ‘faithless elector’ breaking the tie himself, though.

5) But wasn’t the President inevitable?

Mr. Heilemann insists that next Tuesday will be a nail biter. Others have insisted that the election was always going to be close. Interesting how this is the case now, but for most of the year the argument was made that the President was inevitable with regards to reelection.

In the end, Mr. Heilemann’s column almost reads as a primer for Democrats should these situations play out. It would appear that only supporters of the President would have legitimate reasons for outrage should any of these four ‘doomsday’ scenarios occur. More than likely, none of this will come to pass (though it is always possible). I have no doubt about Mr. Heilemann’s desire for a somewhat decisive election result regardless of what direction I think he would prefer it to go, and I’m sure it is a desire we would all share. Should the unlikely in fact occur – well, at least we have a small idea of what to expect.