April 4, 2016
Assuming Ted Cruz retains his current polling advantage and wins Wisconsin tomorrow, we’re at least 50/50 for a contested/brokered/up-in-the-air convention. This is different from assuming Donald Trump won’t get the nomination, though his odds immediately drop.
A full six weeks between the final primaries and the convention allow for all sorts of pre-Cleveland horse trading. There’s a difference between Trump getting to the necessary 1237 and only winding up with 1236, but also a difference between that and 1136.
Keeping Trump to 1237 isn’t a sure thing, regardless of how awful last week supposedly was for him. He’s going to win New York, and could sweep all 5 contests on April 26. I’ll believe Ted Cruz can win Washington or Oregon when it happens, or at least when we see him leading a single poll in either state.
But it’s possible enough that it’s definitely worth taking a look at potential convention scenarios. So that’s what we’re going to do over the next few weeks. Here’s the plan:
Any contested convention is relevant
We’re going to consider any and all of these. No previous situation is an exact match. Technology has changed tremendously in the 40 years since we last had this much drama. Getting to a majority is hard enough, but it used to take 2/3rds of the delegates to get nominated.
The 1976 fight is the only one to take place since the majority of first ballot delegates were assigned during an open primary/caucus process. This system has greatly limited the odds of a contested convention. It’s not an accident that we don’t normally see these anymore.
Back in 1932, it took four ballots to nominate FDR. That seems almost impossible today. It is. He likely would have won fairly easily under the current system. He had money, name recognition, organization, all the things candidates require to win now. I’d guess he would have locked up the nomination before the primaries were done.
That still doesn’t mean there aren’t any lessons from that fight. Every contested convention comes down to two main factors. Attempting to unite/unify the party and putting together the strongest possible ticket. These two goals are sometimes in conflict. The most contentious conventions are the result.
In this case, unifying the party seems almost impossible. Putting a strong ticket together is difficult too. Trump is clearly a giant electoral risk. Cruz is far less than an easy choice. John Kasich polls well but can’t win primaries. Mitt Romney isn’t popular and already lost.
As great as Paul Ryan or any dark horse option sounds, there’s no telling how they would actually perform. Though Ryan wasn’t a drag on the 2012 ticket, it’s hard to see where he made a big positive difference either. Joe Biden got the best of him in the Vice Presidential debate.
It looks like we’re staring at a combination of most of the problems seen in stalemated conventions. We’re going to attack them one at a time, out of order. Sometimes the Democrats are more relevant to the current GOP.
Fears about choosing someone other than Trump, particularly someone who didn’t compete in the primaries are rooted in the 1968 Democratic Convention/several days of street conflict in Chicago. When somebody says Republicans can’t choose someone who hasn’t competed, this is their evidence.
Party bosses don’t have the same pull (or even exist) like they did when the GOP picked Warren G. Harding in 1920. That doesn’t mean a disparate group of influential conservatives and Republican elected officials couldn’t agree on a candidate who would allow them to leverage the opportunity to run against a weakened Hillary Clinton.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you they know how this is going to go
Beyond the history lesson, beyond using this series to point out the variables, it’s also an attempt to balance out the stream of assertions we’ll all hear over the next couple months. People can tell you why Trump can’t possibly win the nomination if he falls even a single delegate short. They’ll have a point, and an example from the past that relates.
People can tell you why Cruz is actually the favorite, due to his skill in getting favorable delegates chosen by their states. This makes intuitive sense and there are historical precedents too.
We’re hearing about rules, the 2012 guideline that says you need to have won a majority of delegates in 8 states in order to qualify for being entered in to nomination at the convention. Some say this matters, that it disqualifies everyone but Trump and Cruz. Others say this rule will clearly go away. Both opinions can find supporting evidence.
Almost everyone making a statement has a dog in the fight. GOP chair Reince Preibus says the nominee is very likely Trump, Cruz, or Kasich. Is this because he wants this result? Is it because he thinks he needs to say this now, so it’s harder to claim he was angling for Ryan? Or does he just think it’s the most likely?
Each candidate and campaign has their own talking points. Most pundits are influenced by their own experiences and by the insiders they communicate with most frequently. Listen all you want, but remember they are leaving out more than they are including.
As we’ll see while hacking through the past, many convention results that seem almost preordained now could have turned out very differently with the slightest of changes. If Strom Thurmond hadn’t lined up with Richard Nixon instead of Ronald Reagan in 1968, the Gipper might have taken office 12 years earlier.
If JFK had fallen just short on the first ballot in 1960, instead of barely making it over the line, waiting until the roll call reached Wyoming to find himself safe, history as you know it wouldn’t exist.
From the beginning of the cycle, Republicans were destined to pick a candidate unlike their normal choices. There wasn’t a consensus candidate, wasn’t a strong runner-up from last time. Each contender was breaking precedent one way or another.
The same holds true now. I can easily disqualify all current or potential contestants by citing a couple examples from the past. Somebody is getting nominated. Beyond that, we may or may not see a third party effort. The only assertion I’m comfortable with is having a record amount of variables.
Make yourself comfortable. We aren’t going to reach a conclusion soon.