2016 has seemed like a year without precedent. Insurgent campaigns doing battle against the establishment for control, hot rhetoric, and unabashed mud-slinging rule the day. And Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are just warming up. There is no question that this will be one of the dirtiest election cycles ever. But politics has always been a blood sport. One year stands out. The presidential election of 1824 was like the 2016 election in frightening ways.
The framers of the Constitution thought that outside of George Washington, who was elected unanimously, we would never be able to agree on a president. So they passed the 12th Amendment as a way to pass the buck to Congress. The Amendment says that if no candidate reaches a majority of votes within the Electoral College, the House of Representatives picks the next president.
And that is what happened in 1824.
James Monroe had just served two terms. General Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, squared off against John Quincy Adams, son of the second president. It looked to be a classic, heavyweight battle. Except for one thing. Four other contenders entered the race: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Secretary of War John Calhoun, and Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson. The Democratic Party was the only party, so the winner of this group would be elected president. There were no primaries back then.
The 1824 race now had six legitimate candidates, much like the crowded field of 2016.
William Crawford suffered a stroke and dropped out. This left a five-way race. Calhoun dropped out to run for Vice President, which was an election of its own in those days. Now we were down to four candidates.
This would be like a 2016 race including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
None of the four candidates won a majority of the vote or Electoral College. Andrew Jackson came the closest. But the selection of the next president now rested in the hands of the House of Representatives. Each state had an equal vote. And they were deadlocked. As the clock ticked past midnight on December 31, 1824, no candidate was able to garner a majority vote. Jackson still held a clear lead, but not a majority.
William Clay despised Jackson, so he eventually threw his support behind Adams, giving him enough votes to win the majority of the states’ delegations to the House of Representatives. That was the first time the winner failed to receive the most votes in the popular vote.
Fast forward to 2016. Imagine that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson wins a plurality of the vote in one tiny state that leans Libertarian – such as New Hampshire. And imagine that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tie with 268 Electoral College votes apiece, which could happen. This would throw the election to the House of Representatives.
A simpler way for this to happen would be for Clinton and Trump to tie at 270 votes apiece in the Electoral College, which could also happen. Either way, Paul Ryan would become king-maker.
Could it happen? It did in 1824. And in the crazy election that we are witnessing today – anything is possible.