Friday, January 11, 2008

Return of the nominating convention in 2008?

At this point in the presidential campaign, what follows is just speculation, but why not share it?

From the moment that the presidential nominating convention was invented in the 1830s, it became one of the central recurrent events of American national politics. But the fact is that we haven't really seen a presidential nominating convention for decades. Yes, the national parties do hold conventions every four years, but for the purpose of coronation, not nomination. Their main function is to serve as infomercials with which to showcase a presidential candidate whose identity was settled months before the convention. Either the nomination is decided by the primaries, or (in an old pattern) it's taken for granted that the party will re-nominate a sitting President. By the time the convention happens, that's a purely ceremonial affair.

If I remember correctly, one has to go back to the 1970s for the last occasion on which the outcome of a major-party convention was potentially in doubt. That was in 1976, when there was a genuine fight at the Republican convention over whether to nominate Ford or Reagan. On the Democratic side, the last time that the nominee was chosen by the convention and not the primaries was in 1968. And it was clear in advance that the nomination would go to Humphrey, who hadn't competed in a single primary but who had assembled solid support from state party organizations and Democratic elected officials--though if Robert Kennedy hadn't been assassinated in June, there would probably have been a wild fight at that convention.

Since then, the party conventions have ceased to play their original role of actually picking the candidate. Delegates still cast their votes at the convention, but that has become a vestigial political ritual.

This year, due to a combination of accidental factors and some potential unintended consequences of the compressed primary election season, it's possible that things might turn out differently. One or both of the major-party candidates might actually be chosen at the convention.

=> My friend Perry Deess first made me realize that a non-ceremonial convention is a real possibility on the Republican side. As Perry pointed out, although the Democratic race has already produced a contest between two clear front-runners, that narrowing-down hasn't happened in the Republican race, and there are good reasons to believe that it won't happen over the next few months (though, of course, it might). Several of the main candidates have quite distinct bases of support--and, perhaps even more important, each of them generates strong hostility from important sectors of the Republican coalition (who will not be easily reconciled to their nomination).

And then there's the fact that big multiple-primary day, Super-Duper Tuesday on February 5, happens so early in 2008. About half of the Republican convention delegates will be chosen on that single day. It's hypothetically possible that one candidate will win in such an overwhelming sweep that he will knock the others out. But it's actually more likely that several of the leading candidates will split those primaries between them. After that, some candidates will start running out of money and won't be able to keep actively campaigning. But they will still have delegates pledged to them, and will probably hold on to those delegates for the convention even if they sit out the rest of the primary season.

So it is quite possible that when the Republican convention opens on September 1, no single candidate will have a majority of delegates--and significant blocs of the other delegates will not feel inclined to simply rally around the front-runner. The result could well be a replay of one of those traditional staples of American political history--the brokered convention.

=> So much for the Republicans. But perhaps we shouldn't discount the prospect of an non-ceremonial convention on the Democratic side, either.

My cousin Hal Plotkin makes a plausible case that this outcome is possible, though the dynamics would be somewhat different than for the Republican race. In fact, Hal thinks a brokered convention this year is more likely for the Democrats than for the Republicans. To find out why, read the analysis on his blog, "What I Really Want to Say...". Some highlights:
There's been lots of talk lately that the GOP may be heading for a possible brokered presidential nominating convention. I don't think that will happen. Instead, I suspect the GOP candidates who lose the next few primaries will have trouble raising the cash they need to compete in the final round of primaries, when the winner of the GOP nomination will be determined, in all likelihood, well before the convention. My bet: probably McCain, maybe Huckabee or Romney.

A much more interesting story is developing on the other side where the Democrats have two very strong candidates, Clinton and Obama, who seem certain to remain well-financed right up to and through the convention, fighting toe to toe all the way. Right now, the media is all focused on the Hillary resurrection story, how she came back from the dead in New Hampshire [....]

But here is an angle most of the media have missed. Mathematically speaking, I just don't see how Hillary can win the nomination. Here's why: no matter what Hillary does, she can't seem to get her support above around 40 percent. That was true in Iowa and New Hampshire, although her support bounced around quite a bit up to that limit in both places, and it is also true of the polls for the races upcoming. In other words, 60 percent or so of Democrats are consistently voting against Hillary. She's stuck around 40 percent.

Likewise, Obama also has been generating up to about 40 percent or so support thus far, give or take a few percent which the two candidates pass back and forth in different states depending on the demographics. Edwards, the only other candidate still standing, gets the rest, his 10 to 20 percent.
I suppose that the balance between Obama's support and Clinton's support might or might not change dramatically in the next few months, and it's unclear whether there is a solid anti-Hillary vote. But here is the kicker:
Many people are wondering why Edwards is still in this thing, why he is hanging in there. But his 10 or 20 percent of the delegates may well be enough to give him the balance of power at the nominating convention. If the present trend continues, Edwards will control the swing votes that Clinton and Obama need to capture the nomination on a second ballot.
If that happens, what next? Most commentary about the Democratic race has taken it for granted that Edwards's continued presence in the race helps Clinton, because he "splits the anti-Clinton vote." I don't pretend to any great expertise on these matters, but I'm not so sure. The kinds of people who have been voting for Edwards--for example, working-class Democrats, union members, and so on--have also been supporting Clinton more than Obama. I suspect that if Edwards were to be knocked out of the race, Obama and Clinton might simply split the Edwards voters.

But whether that's correct or not, there are various reasons why Hal may be right to suggest that a lot of Edwards delegates would be more bitterly opposed to Clinton than to Obama.
Now, in a close contest between Obama and Clinton, who will the Edwards delegates vote for on a second ballot? Clinton? I don't think so. Not given the hostility most hard-core Edwards supporters feel for the NAFTA-tarred Clintons.
So a contentious Democratic convention might well wind up choosing Obama on a second or third ballot--though, as Hal goes on to discuss, other factors including the role of so-called "superdelegates" might let Clinton eke out a convention victory. Could be. (Read the rest HERE.)

[Update 1/16/2008: A piece by Ruth Marcus in today's Washington Post, "Parsing Tsunami Tuesday", offers an analysis and some speculative predictions that accord pretty closely with Hal's.]

=> The upshot is that this year, for the first time in decades, there is at least a good possibility that we might seen one or even two genuine presidential nominating conventions. If that happens, the politicians and the pundits will have to go back and start reading the history books to find out how those things work.

--Jeff Weintraub