Of Deadlocks and Dark Horses

February 27, 2012

[updated; see below]

Greetings from Austin, TX! For those of you who missed it, last time I was here (September) I took a fabulous tour of the state capitol building, which inspired this post on legislative security, or the lack thereof. Austin is, of course, named for Stephen F. Austin, who managed to make it into one of my GOP Candidate Venn Diagrams back in December. I’m sure by Wednesday my thoughts will have marinated in the warm Texas air long enough to inspire further Texas-blogging. But it hasn’t happened yet. Or maybe you’re just lucky that I’m resisting the urge to do some air-travel complaint-blogging (is there any sharper contrast than taking off in idyllic DCA and then having a layover in Dallas-Ft. Worth?). I did cross paths with a weary-looking Speaker Gingrich at DCA around 7am, but aside from reporting that he got no special treatment at security, there’s not much there.

What’s actually on my mind is all the talk about deadlocked conventions, specifically the prospect of the upcoming GOP convention being so. This seems to be all the rage these days on the blogs. Here’s Sullivan. Here’s Ezra. Here’s Mickey. Here’s Jamelle. Here’s Nate. Here’s Sean Trende. Etc. Etc. I should start by saying that Jonathan Bernstein and Josh Putnam have already done the yoeman’s work of bringing some solid political science analysis to the table, and getting the odds and required conditions of a deadlocked convention in proper perspective (see Jonathan’s writing here on the basic idea, here on the odds, here talking different definitions, here talking some nuts and bolts if the unthinkable came to pass, today talking about it again, search his blog for more; Josh’s writing here and then here on the myth of proportionality in the GOP rules changes; here talking about how the calendar has ruled out a late “straight” entry; search his blog for more). The bottom line is that a deadlock is (1) highly unlikely; (2) isn’t somehow magically more possible due to the GOP primary rules changes this year; and (3) also should not be referred to as a “brokered” convention, because the so-called brokers of yesterday simply do not have control of the delegates in the modern environment.

What I’d add to all of this is three things:

1. People are confusing the related historical ideas of a “brokered” convention and a “dark horse” candidate. These are two separate ideas, and they should be kept separate for analytical purposes. A “brokered” convention in the 19th century was one in which no candidate had enough delegates committed coming into the convention to simply take the nomination on the first ballot without any bargaining. Since the primaries weren’t universal prior to 1972, this often ended up being the case, especially on the Democratic side, where the 2/3 rule was in force between 1832 and 1936, requiring a candidate to get 2/3 of the delegates for nomination. In any case, it was often the situation in the 19th century that the convention opened with half a dozen or more candidates, each with some support among the various state bosses who controlled the delegates, but without anyone even close to majority support. The nomination would be settled after the campaigns bargained for the support of the brokers’ delegates, often by making policy promises or horse-trading patronage or other goodies.

This, however, has nothing to do with the idea of a dark horse. A dark horse was a nominee who emerged victorious at a convention despite have little or no delegate support coming in, and perhaps not even being on the radar screen as a candidate prior to the convention. The two most famous dark horse candidates are probably Franklin Pierce in 1852 and William Jennings Bryan in 1896. The ’52 Democratic convention opened with four major candidates — Douglas, Cass, Marcy, and Buchanan — but on the first 34 ballots, none of them could get a bare majority, nevermind the 2/3 necessary to win. On the 35th ballot, Pierce was introduced as a compromise candidate, and although he never got more than about 1/6 of the votes on the next 14 ballots, a deal was struck prior the 49th ballot and he was nominated almost unanimously. Bryan came into the 1896 convention unmentioned among about 8 possible candidates, but was so inspiring to the Silver faction during his cross of gold speech that he quickly became a contender, and won on the 5th ballot. The point is that a dark horse is the result when the brokering process completely stalls or when some unforseen event dramatically alters the convention; it’s not the essence of the brokering process itself. You could have a brokered convention in the 19th century without a dark horse (they were more or less routine); conversely, you could theoretically have a dark horse that emerged victoriously on the first ballot (although it never happened).

These two ideas are being conflated right now in regard to the GOP convention deadlock talk. A lot of people seem to think that a deadlock heading into the convention somehow strongly suggests a dark horse. But if the situation were to arise that no one had enough delegates to win on the first ballot coming into the convention, the initial bargaining would probably not include dark horse candidates, such as Jeb Bush or John Thune or Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels or Sarah Palin or whoever, but instead would involve bargaining between delegate groups among the existing candidates, in an attempt to resolve the deadlock in favor of one of them. Much like the 19th century, a turn toward a dark horse would probably only occur after the initial bargaining yielded no fruit. Now, this is not airtight: as Bernstein and others have pointed out, without the party bosses who could effectively bind and deliver voting blocs, who the hell knows how such bargaining would be organized. But I have a hunch that in the most likely of the unlikely situations — one in which at least one candidate is very close to having enough delegates — it would not be hard for him to bargain his way to an additional 100 or 200 if that’s what it took. And so I think the upshot is that those looking to deny Romney (or whoever) a bare majority going in are unlikely to see it result in a dark horse; much more likely is that Romney buys up the Ron Paul delegates with some platform or patronage or other promises, and takes the nomination.

2. Dark horse candidates are much, much better suited to the 19th century electoral structure. This is another reason the GOP would be unlikely to move toward a dark horse: the institutional structure of the modern presidential election is completely inhospitable to such a candidate, and the parties know it. And since the parties want to win, they won’t do it. Here’s the problem: in the 19th century, the party was the chief campaign organ; whoever the nominee was for President, they were simply plugged — more or less as a name on a sign — into the electoral apparatus of the party. The candidate didn’t even campaign; he usually just went and sat on his front porch, wrote a few letters about his policy positions (mostly of the type “I am a regular Whig/Democrat in all respects”), and stayed the hell out of things. The party did the campaigning: they raised the money; they had the federated network of operatives, newspapers, volunteers, and printers; they conducted the parades and speaking tours through their party men and elected federal, state, and local officials; and they set the strategy in each state for promoting their presidential candidate within the context of their entire state ticket. The candidate was important because of who he was, but was not important in respect to what he could do between August and November.

Totally different now. The candidate now runs the electoral machine: raising the money, coordinating the volunteers, doing the polling, organizing the campaign themes, and everything else. He also personally campaigns and takes part in the general election debates. In other words, he is indispensable to the electoral effort of the party between August and November. And so, as many people have pointed out, a dark horse candidate has at least two strikes against him: first, he has not been vetted in the face of a national primary campaign. As someone said last week on Twitter, if Rick Perry hadn’t run in the primaries and been vetted out of the race, he would probably be one of the top dark horse names being mentioned right now. Think about what that line of thinking means to GOP operatives pondering a dark horse. Yikes! On the other hand, Perry is miles in front of a real dark horse, and this is point two: the financial and organziational requirements of a general election campaign seem fundamentally predicated on months, if not years, of advanced preparation. You need national donor and volunteer lists, boots on the ground in every state, media connections, deep polling and social analysis of voters, and so on. No politician who hasn’t been running for President has anything remotely close to this. Even if Jeb Bush had complete access to his brother’s 4-year old organization, it would leave him so far behind as to probably destroy any value-added (and more) that he could bring by not being one of the (evidently) unliked existing candidates.

3. I don’t see factional bolting as a realistic possibility, even contingent on a deadlocked convention. Bernstein raised an interesting possibility that cuts between the two ideas mentioned above: a factional bolting at the convention. In this idea, there would be no successful bargaining between the major candidates, but there would be no dark horse who emerges either. Instead, the convention might fracture, resulting in two conventions that nominate two separate candidates, creating not only an utter mess for the party, but also a legal disaster: unlike the famous Democratic party fracture in 1860, such an event today would require state by state judicial intervention, since the states control the ballot lines and would need to adjudicate who was the rightful holder of the GOP ballot line. A nightmare of intense proportion, and not for just the Republican Party: if one of the major parties was effectively cut off from nationally competing under one candidate, then real choice for voters is short-circuited, and that’s not good for anyone in the short-term.

I don’t see this as a possibility, even conditional on a deadlocked convention. The pro-bolt thinking goes something like this: the social conservatives have their candidate (Santorum), the business conservatives have theirs (Romney), and the libertarians have theirs (Paul), and we’ve come to the point where these groups will no longer play nice under the GOP tent. I don’t buy it. While there is probably intense personal loyalty among committed delegates (the campaigns choose them), I don’t see the schism required in the party to support bolting. When bolting has occurred in the past, it has almost always occurred over a single burning issue — the Southerners walking out of the Democratic convention in 1860 (slavery; or more specifically the defeat of platform support for Dred and a federal slave code for the territories) or 1948 (segregation). And in both of those cases, there’s a fair amount of evidence that the bolters were acting at least plausibly rationally, in an attempt to push the election into the House of Representatives. A bolt at the 2012 GOP convention would plainly not accomplish this, as there would be no visible way for the bolting candidate to get on the ballots.

And so the only reason to bolt would be in an attempt to wrestle the nomination away from the other candidates and for oneself. But this is obviously a high-risk strategy, and one that would probably be net-negative for the successful candidate. Now, net negative could be arguably better than not having the nomination, but party actors — particularly those whose job depends on winning the election — would be uniformly against it. As would the national press, I presume. And therefore, I find it highly unlikely that a candidate would want to try it; to be seen as the first bolter would almost certainly seal one’s fate to losing the election, regardless of the legal fallout as to who got the nomination.

Ok, I cannot believe I just wrote 2000+ words about something that not only isn’t going to happen, but that I’ve been laughing about all the writing that has been done about it already. But I guess that only proves the maxim: political junkies love things like brokered conventions, House-decided presidential elections, and electoral college ties, even if the results of those things actually happening would be almost certainly not good for our republic.

Update (2/28; 2:45pm): Jonathan Bernstein has posted a response to all this that I highly recommend reading. It’s always flattering to have people you respect critique your writing, and that’s certainly how I feel about Jon. I alos have a subsequent response to Bernstein’s thoughts here.

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2 Responses to Of Deadlocks and Dark Horses

  1. Beating a dead (dark) horse | Matt Glassman on February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    […] response to my post from yesterday about brokered conventions and dark horses, Jon Bernstein makes the case that I’m underestimating the possibility of a factional bolt if […]

  2. withrow on March 1, 2012 at 5:06 am

    Unless you make being unvetted part of the definition of dark horse, I disagree with your assessment of the possibility of one emerging from a convention. Conventional party infrastructures plus superpacs would make any candidate viable who comes out of a major party convention, especially if you buy into the idea that presidential elections are referenda on incumbents.

    But the dark horse candidate of tomorrow may be markedly different from those of the past. After all, 19th century presidents didn’t have their fingers on the nuclear button; they could be relatively unknown. On the other hand, acceptable candidates can be much older now than then.

    The problem here is that the Republican Party is at an atypical moment– they have no distinguished elder statesmen. But if it were the Democratic Party that was suddenly fragmented, there’d be more “dark horses” to draw from. Al Gore being the most likely, but even Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton would be suitably vetted candidates of national standing. Ted Kennedy was available for a generation. The problem is that no one associated with the Bush Administration reaches that level. (Oh, I suppose someone besides myself could make an argument for Colin Powell, but why bother?)

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