Monday, March 17, 2008

Should Dems Split Nomination Like 1836 Whigs?

Should Dems Split Nomination Like 1836 Whigs?

Democrats facing their irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be wishing they could somehow nominate both.

They can, actually.

Let's hop in the Wayback Machine and travel to 1836, when one political party had not two, but three presidential candidates.

The Whig Party, which has the second funniest name of any dead political party just behind the Know-Nothing Party, was just in the process of forming around the basic ideology of hating President Andrew Jackson and dodging the slavery issue. The Democrats, perhaps persuaded by Jackson's track record of dueling with people he had disputes with, quickly settled on Vice President Martin Van Buren. But the Whigs were split between General William Henry Harrison of Ohio, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and Senator Hugh White of Tennessee.

So they nominated all of them.

Quick Electoral College 101: We regular folks don't vote for president. We vote for presidential electors, and they vote for president. In almost every state it's a winner take all system. That's how it was in 1836, that's how it is now.

The Whig strategy in 1836 was to win a majority of electoral votes by running each candidate in the region he was strongest. Webster represented the party in New England, Harrison (pictured) ran in what was then called the Northwest and White was the candidate in the South. If between the three of them they could manage to win more than half the electoral votes, they could either consolidate behind one candidate, or throw the election into the House of Representatives if they preferred. It had only been twelve years since a four-way presidential election had produced an Electoral College deadlock that had been settled by the House, so it wasn't an unthinkable strategy.

It was a compromise; the Whigs were big on compromises. But it was an unsuccessful strategy, as Van Buren and the Democrats won a clear Electoral College majority. The experiment served as a sort of 1840 Whig national primary, as Harrison became the de facto front-runner by getting more electoral votes than Webster or White. We all know the rest: the economy tanked in the Panic of 1837 (recessions had more dramatic names back then), Harrison won in the Tippecanoe and Tyler Too campaign of 1840, and gave a really long inaugural speech in the rain. Next year, William Henry Harrison dollar coins will be minted for three times longer than he actually served as president.

Could such a strategy work today? No, not dying after a month in office, I mean running different candidates in different states. Since candidates file with each state, there's really not a legal barrier. The barriers would be more political. Would the public stand for the shenanigans? Maybe not, with the grumbling about popular vote in the primaries and the role of the superdelegates. But then, just eight years ago a president was sworn in with fewer votes than his opponent, thanks to the 18th century wonders of the Electoral College, and the streets did not flow with the blood of the nonbelievers.

A March 6 Survey USA series of polls showed both Obama and Clinton leading John McCain in the Electoral College. Obama beats McCain 280 electoral votes to 258, while Clinton defeats McCain 276 to 262. But the patterns are quite different. Obama loses some border states that Clinton wins, but does better in the Great Plains and Rockies. One of those Great Plains states is Iowa, where McCain beats Clinton but loses to Obama.

Let's suspend our disbelief and assume that the Democrats deadlock and come up with a mashup candidate as a compromise: Barack Rodham Obama, or Hillary Hussein Clinton. Time to play with maps and numbers.

First let's look at the primary results, a familiar map to anyone who's been watching election coverage.

Obama is in green and Clinton in orange, with the yet to vote states in gray and calendar cheaters Michigan and Florida in black.

Now let's look at which candidate runs stronger in a general election against McCain according to Survey USA.

In this map, the gray states indicate Clinton and Obama run within two points of each other. This is a similar map, but not identical. In a few Deep South states where Obama easily won primaries, Clinton runs just as well as he does; probably one set of votes trading off for another. And interestingly, Obama runs better than Clinton in Texas.

Now let's see what happens if the Democrats adopt the 1836 Whig strategy and run the stronger candidate in each state.

It's not a squeaker anymore -- it's a landslide, 341 electoral votes for the two Democrats vs. 173 for McCain, with Tennessee and Virginia too close to call (see data table below). Obama even picks up two electoral votes from Nebraska, one of the two states that split their electoral votes by congressional district.

Then they settle it with a deal in the smoke-free room, or if that fails, they can settle it the way Andrew Jackson settled his disputes. They'd still be eligible to hold office in Iowa, thanks to the 1992 dueling amendment. Just remember: if it's raining on Inauguration Day, cut the speech short.

Survey USA, 3/6/08: McCain vs. Stronger Democrat


Electoral Vote

stronger DemPrimary Winner
Alabama51%41%9 ClintonObama
Alaska48%43%3 ObamaObama
Arizona51%39%10 ObamaClinton
Arkansas40%51% 6Clinton (Obama loses)Clinton
California40%51% 55ObamaClinton
Colorado41%50% 9Obama (Clinton loses)Obama
Connecticut34%55% 7ObamaObama
Delaware41%50% 3ObamaObama
Florida42%51% 27Clinton (Obama loses)depends
Georgia54%41%15 ObamaObama
Idaho52%39%4 ObamaObama
Indiana50%41%11 Obama-
Iowa41%50% 7Obama (Clinton loses)Obama
Kansas50%42%6 ClintonObama
Kentucky50%41%8 Clinton-
Louisiana51%41%9 ClintonObama
Maine39%53% 4ObamaObama
Maryland40%53% 10ObamaObama
Massachusetts37%55% 12ClintonClinton
Michigan44%46% 17Obama (Clinton loses)depends
Minnesota42%49% 10ObamaObama
Mississippi51%42%6 ClintonObama
Missouri48%44%11 ClintonObama
Montana47%39%3 Obama-
Nebraska45%42%32Obama (wins 2 of 3 districts)Obama
Nevada41%46% 5Obama (Clinton loses)Clinton Clinton (Obama won delegates)
New Hampshire44%46% 4Obama (Clinton loses)Clinton
New Jersey42%47% 15Clinton (Obama loses)Clinton
New Mexico43%50% 5ObamaClinton
New York33%55% 31ClintonClinton
North Carolina47%45%15 Obama-
North Dakota42%46% 3Obama (Clinton loses)Obama
Ohio40%50% 20sameClinton
Oklahoma50%42%7 ClintonClinton
Oregon41%49% 7Obama (Clinton loses)-
Pennsylvania46%47% 21Clinton (Obama loses)-
Rhode Island37%54% 4ClintonClinton
South Carolina48%45%8 ObamaObama
South Dakota47%43%3 Obama-
Tennessee46%46%tietieClinton (ties, Obama loses)Clinton
Texas47%46%34 ObamaClinton (Obama won delegates)
Utah50%39%5 ObamaObama
Vermont29%63% 3ObamaObama
Virginia47%47%tietieObama (ties, Clinton loses)Obama
Washington38%52% 11Obama (Clinton loses)Obama
West Virginia42%47% 5Clinton (Obama loses)-
Wisconsin40%51% 10ObamaObama
Wyoming54%35%3 ObamaObama
District of Columbianot polled- 3ObamaObama
Total  17334124 tied-

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