Most of the latest polls show that, if the election were held today, more people would vote for the Palin-McCain ticket than for the Obama-Biden ticket.
This would be interesting if we, the people of the United States, actually had the right to vote for President. But, of course, we don't. As every American who was even moderately sentient eight years ago knows, we, the people, vote for electors on a state-by-state basis, and then the 538 electors meet in the Electoral College to decide who should be the next President of the United States. (OK, the electors don't all actually "meet" but then again, when I was in College I wasn't always where I was supposed to be, either.)
Until eight years ago, if Americans thought about the Electoral College at all, we mostly thought about it as some arcane piece of political trivia, of interest only to scholars and pedants. After all, the electoral vote result hadn't differed from the popular vote result for more than a century. But then, in the infamous hanging-chad election of 2000, half a million more people voted for Al Gore than voted for George Bush but since a majority of the 538 electors voted against Gore, Bush became our President. And suddenly we all wished that we had paid a little more attention in civics class when the subject of the Twelfth Amendment came up.
After the 2000 election, the Electoral College quickly became the darling of Republicans in general and, especially, the right-wing reactionary media. This struck me as more than a little bizarre, because I had never thought of the issue of popular votes vs. electoral votes as a Republican vs. Democrat issue or even as a Conservative vs. Liberal issue, it was more of a let's-do-something-different vs. let's-keep-things-the-way-they-are issue (OK, maybe that is a conservative issue, with a small "c"). I never entirely understood the reactionary argument that the Electoral College protects the rights of smaller states, because what it more often does is effectively remove small states from the electoral process completely. If you're running for President and you have a limited media budget, are you going to buy ads in California (where 55 electoral votes are at stake) or in Nevada (which has all of five electoral votes)? Exactly. If you live in a small state, don't expect to see any of the candidates (live or on TV) until the primary battles begin again in 2011.
[Yes, I know that Obama was in Nevada today. That's the exception that proves the rule. I have no idea what that phrase means, but I'm glad that I finally had a chance to trot it out.]
Not only did right-wing praise of the Electoral College strike me as strange, it also seemed to be more than a little short-sighted. I mean, what would the reactionary media say in the next election if the opposite happened that is, if the Republicans were to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote? (That nearly did happen, by the way if 60,000 of the people in Ohio who voted for George Bush had voted for John Kerry instead, Bush would have still received nearly three million more votes than Kerry nationwide, but Kerry would have garnered five more electoral votes than Bush, and he would have been the President.)
And here's where it gets interesting: The stars may be lining up for the same thing to happen again. As I said at the start of this post, the polls currently indicate that the Palin-McCain ticket would win the popular vote by a few percentage points if the election were held today. But an analysis of the state-by-state polling results indicates that the Obama-Biden ticket is leading in the electoral vote which is, of course the only vote that counts. If this dichotomy holds, we could once again find ourselves in a situation where most American voters choose one candidate, but the opposing candidate becomes our President.
But wait! There's more!!
It's entirely possible that, no matter which way the meaningless popular vote goes, the electoral vote could be a tie. If that were to happen, the President would be chosen by the House of Representatives (with each state getting one vote), which would effectively mean that the new President would be a Democrat. And the Vice President would be selected in a similar manner by the Senate, which would mean...
OK, here's where it gets really interesting.
It's true that the Democrats control the Senate just as they do the House. But their margin in the Senate is only 51-49, which is literally the thinnest possible margin. And two of those 51 votes don't actually belong to Democrats, they belong to Independents. One of those Independents is Bernie Sanders, a "democratic socialist" who would nearly certainly vote with the Democrats (so the odds of an outright 51-49 Republican victory are slim). But the other Indie is none other than Joe Lieberman, who has been a Democratic politician for something like 40 years, so you might expect him to vote for a Democrat for VP, were it not for the fact that he was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention.
So, if the electoral vote is tied and the VP vote gets thrown to the Senate, and if Joe Lieberman votes with the Republicans, we've got ourselves another tie. What happens then?
Since it's never happened before, nobody can give you a definitive answer to that question.
But wait, you say, as you strain to remember what the Constitution said when you last read it in High School: Doesn't the Vice President vote to break ties in the Senate?
And the answer is: In the normal course of events, you're absolutely correct. But the Twelfth Amendment implies that 51 actual Senators would have to vote to elect a new Vice President, which would seem to mean that the sitting Vice President, one Richard Bruce Cheney, would not get a vote.
But what happens if the Republicans dispute that interpretation and insist that Mr. Cheney does have the tie-breaking vote? Who settles that dispute?
Typically, the Senate sets its own rules, and the Courts have been reluctant to interfere. But the courts have been similarly reluctant to interfere with a state's right to conduct its own elections and yet the Supreme Court managed to overcome its reluctance in 2000, bringing an abrupt end to the recount(s) of the votes in Florida. So if the Repubs were to ask SCOTUS (for the acronym-deprived, that's the Supreme Court of the United States) to allow Dick Cheney to cast the tie-breaking vote, I think it's entirely possible that they might decide that (a) they do indeed have jurisdiction, and (b) Mr. Cheney does indeed have that right.
And if Dick Cheney gets to cast the tie-breaking vote for Vice President, which way do you think he'll vote?
President Obama, say hello to Vice President Palin.