If the House Picks the President in ’08…

Last Sunday’s New York Times included an interesting look at possible electoral college strategies for Michael Bloomberg should he enter the presidential race. Then there is this quote from Mario Cuomo, buttressing writer Patrick Healy’s contention that if the election were thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives (in the event that no candidate received 270 electoral votes), it would be the Democrats’ to lose:

“If he gets it into the House, a Democrat is going to win the presidency, because they have the votes pure and simple.”

On the surface, the math supports this. If the election went to the House, each state would be given one vote, and as Healy points out, 26 state delegations are now controlled by Democrats, compared with just 20 for the GOP (4 are evenly split).

But look closer.

One of those Democratic delegations is from South Dakota, a state whose sole “at-large” representative is Stephanie Herseth – and I would not be so quick to assume that Herseth would cast the 26th vote for a Democratic president.

South Dakota, you can assume, will lopsidedly back the Republican candidate next year, which would create tremendous pressure at home for Herseth to express the will of her constituents in a House vote. Yes, it’s true that her constituents don’t give her (too much) grief for voting for a Democratic Speaker, but a presidential election in the House would be a whole different matter. Hundreds of thousands of South Dakotans would have taken time out of their lives to cast ballots (again for the GOP candidate) – how would they react if Herseth unilaterally invalidated their votes by casting hers for the Democrat? Especially if her vote was the 26th and decisive vote to elect that Democrat President.

And it’s not like her seat is particularly safe. Her narrow victory in a 2004 special election was a rare gift for Democrats, as was her survival that fall (as South Dakotans tossed fellow Democrat Tom Daschle out). Herseth, who is young, bright, and ambitious (it’s assumed she’ll ultimately run for the Senate, and maybe even land on a national ticket someday), has to constantly bend over backwards to prove to her home state’s voters that she is not like the D.C. Democrats they so distrust and dislike. (The House’s Democratic leadership recognizes this, too— they include Herseth in their “Frontline” program, which excuses the ten most potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents from having to pay “dues” to the DCCC .) Remember that Daschle was defeated in ’04 because too many in his home state concluded that he had become more of a Washington Democrat than a South Dakota Democrat. It is not hard to envision Herseth, if she were to thumb her nose at the presidential preference of the vast majority of South Dakotans, being drummed out of office in 2010.

At the very least, a House presidential vote would be a wrenching decision for her, and maybe a no-win situation, too. Vote for her party’s nominee and she could be saying goodbye to a promising political career in South Dakota. Defy her party and national Democrats would accord her the same pariah status now reserved for Ralph Nader.

Actually, Herseth probably wouldn’t be alone in her anguish. Her next-door neighbor, North Dakota’s at-large Representative Earl Pomeroy, would also be charged with casting a House vote on behalf of his ultra-red state. Pomeroy is more entrenched than Herseth – he was elected in 1992 – but he also had a very close call in 2002, winning re-election by just four points. How would his constituents feel if her over-rode their votes in the presidential election (especially if, say, Republicans poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a slick advertising campaign designed to stoke such outrage)?

And what about states like North Carolina and Tennessee, which will almost certainly side with the GOP presidential candidate by big margins? Democrats have one-seat majorities in each of their House delegations, and some of those Democratic representatives have hopes of running for statewide office in the future. Would breaking ranks in the in the interest of “honoring the will of the voters” be a good way for one of these ambitious Democrats to introduce himself to the statewide electorate? Arkansas, where Democrats hold three of the four House seats, might belong on this too, although Democrats may be able to win it outright in the presidential election (with Bill Clinton potentially returning to his roots on behalf of his wife).

Democrats can pencil in 26 House votes for their presidential candidate at their own risk. But I wouldn’t be so confident. After all, remember how quickly some of the party’s key players gave up on Al Gore in the 2000 recount.

If the House Picks the President in ’08…