Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Is a Contested Convention Inevitable?

Before the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses began, I figured — like probably everyone else did — that, even though there were 17 candidates for the Republican nomination, the voters would settle on one fairly early in the process.

If anyone had asked me if we would know the identity of the nominee by mid–April, I would have responded in the affirmative. After all, that is the way it almost always works out.

All the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees in my lifetime have been nominated on the first ballot. Whatever their faults may have been, candidates have won or lost the general election entirely on their own. The number of ballots it took to nominate them has never been a factor in the general election.

But the topic of a contested convention — sometimes called a "brokered" convention although that really is a label that belongs to another time in American political history — began to circulate rather early in that process this year — and even though we are in mid–April and the Republican field is down to three active candidates, we still do not know who the nominee will be.

The front–runner, businessman Donald Trump, has been busily shooting himself in the foot. He lost the Wisconsin primary to his top rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, last week, and now he is limping into his home state primary, New York, where polls show him comfortably ahead.

Once Trump wins New York next week, as appears inevitable — although I guess I should be more careful about proclaiming something inevitable, given what we have already seen in this year's presidential campaign on both sides — I believe Cruz will be mathematically eliminated from securing enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the third wheel in the campaign, is already mathematically eliminated.

But that won't mean that Trump is on Easy Street. Cruz and Kasich aren't the only ones who have delegates committed to them. So does Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who withdrew from the race when he lost his home state's primary a month ago. Rubio has 171 delegates who will be committed to him through the first ballot.

Trump needs to secure more than 51% of the delegates that are available in the primaries that will be held in the next two months to barely win a majority. That is certainly achievable. It is fortunate for Trump that most states do not award delegates on a purely proportional basis.

Trump having enough delegates to win on the first ballot is certainly more likely than Cruz capturing 90% of the remaining delegates (and that assumes that Trump won't win most of the delegates in New York). Talk about an impossible dream. And, as I said, Kasich isn't in the running for a first–ballot nomination.

But Cruz and Kasich could prevent Trump from having enough delegates to claim the nomination on the first ballot when everyone goes to Cleveland this summer. That could so easily happen.

American voters are a funny bunch sometimes. It often happens that, when one candidate appears to be on the verge of clinching a presidential nomination, the voters in the party start voting for someone else. Most of the time, that has happened in the Democratic Party. The front–runner eventually prevails, but not before the voters flex their contrarian muscles and throw a good scare into the presumptive nominee — as if to remind him (or her — Bernie Sanders seems to be throwing a good scare into Hillary Clinton's campaign) who's really in charge.

Or, at least, who is supposed to be in charge.

In the case of a contested convention, it appears that no one will be in charge. That is the part that seems to worry people the most. There will be chaos, we are told. Delegates will be fighting in the aisles.

Actually, the biggest concern seems to be that a multi–ballot convention will doom the nominee in the general election.

But I conducted a very random and extremely unscientific survey, and nearly everyone with whom I spoke said multiple ballots at the convention would not disqualify the nominee from becoming president.

Of course, I suppose that depends on what the voters see playing out on their TV screens during the convention. If they see riots in the streets, that could certainly influence their votes.

A contested convention would be a new thing for just about everyone. The last time the Republicans needed more than one ballot to choose their nominee was in 1948, nearly 70 years ago. That convention produced the second nomination of New York Gov. Tom Dewey, who went on to lose to President Truman in the upset of which people still speak.

The Democrats' most recent contested convention was in 1952. That one produced Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson as the nominee. He went on to lose the election to popular war hero General Dwight Eisenhower.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering if a contested convention has ever produced a nominee who went on to win the presidency. The answer to that is yes.

Woodrow Wilson (1912) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932) were both the products of contested conventions. FDR only needed four ballots. Wilson needed nearly four dozen.

Four Democratic presidents in the 19th century — James K. Polk in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1852, James Buchanan in 1856 and Grover Cleveland in 1884 — needed more than one ballot to win their nominations.

In fact, until Harry Truman won the 1948 nomination on the first ballot and went on to win the November election, every eventual Democratic president for more than a century needed multiple ballots the first time he was nominated.

But eventual failure has been a more frequent outcome. Including the 1952 convention, 10 Democratic nominees who needed more than one ballot have gone on to lose the presidency. Thus, by nearly a 2–to–1 margin, nominees from brokered Democratic conventions have lost in the general election.

Multiple–ballot conventions have been less frequent for Republicans. They have had only 10, but their success ratio has been better. Half of those contested conventions produced the eventual winner, starting with Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

My guess is that, barring violence in the streets of Cleveland, a contested convention would be a ratings magnet. A contested convention would give viewers a rare civics lesson, an opportunity to see real wheeling and dealing on the convention floor, which would be sure to produce some surprises the next time the roll of the states was called. As I mentioned, Cruz and Kasich might well join forces to stop Trump. Cruz might well tell Kasich that, in exchange for his delegates' support, he would offer Kasich the vice presidency.

In that case, Trump might try to join forces with Rubio — and make a similar offer to him for his delegates.

And, although the two leaders deny that anything like it will happen, a compromise candidate might emerge if the balloting goes beyond a second or third ballot.

Theoretically, anything could happen in a contested convention.

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