Presidential Campaign Free-For-All

[ Posted Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007 – 01:46 UTC ]

Wouldn't it be fun to have real national party conventions next year?

By "real" I mean, of course, presidential nominating conventions that actually do the work of nominating a party candidate, instead of wasting four days of America's time to certify an already-foregone conclusion. Some may call me crazy for saying so, but I think there is truly a possibility we could have at least one up-for-grabs convention next year.

[Although I have so far resisted the urge to comment on the presidential race, I must admit that I find the prospect of open conventions too tempting to pass up. Besides, it's nearly summer, and I've got to start sometime....]

First, let's examine where we are now.

With roughly a year and a half to go before election day, both parties have three strong, well-financed, heavyweight frontrunners -- and even also have a decent second tier of candidates, in case one of the frontrunners has a "macaca moment," or otherwise stumbles.

You would think that sixteen official candidates from the two major parties would be enough, wouldn't you? But speculation abounds as to which heavyweights -- Democratic, Republican and Independent -- are still coyly waiting to throw their hats into the ring. Combine this with what may turn out to be a de facto national primary, and we could have the biggest free-for-all presidential race this country has seen in decades.

Now, when most pundits talk about how exciting this campaign is going to be, they limit themselves to repeating the fact that 2008 will be the first election since the 1950s where there will be no "heir apparent" running (i.e., no sitting Vice President or President will be on either ticket).

But the prospect of wide-open conventions makes an already wild election even more freewheeling. Which could translate into a better campaign, not just for pundits to pontificate on, but also as more plausible choices for voters -- instead of the usual either/or dichotomy.

To see how we get there from here, we have to examine how the open convention scenario could actually happen.

The new primary calendar (which is still changing almost weekly, it seems) will be heavily front-loaded into January and the first week in February. Conventional wisdom has it that this is going to favor a single, strong candidate from each party, who will win the nomination in a landslide on February 5th. However, this conventional wisdom may be completely wrong.

The way the old primary calendar was structured, New Hampshire, Iowa, and a few other states who voted extremely early would narrow the field down to three or (at the most) four candidates. The minor candidates would (at this point) run out of money due to lack of donations (nobody likes to bet on a sure loser), and either gracefully drop out or continue running a "shadow" campaign in the hopes of being a "kingmaker" later in the contest by being courted by one of the frontrunners.

The second, middle phase of the campaign would be a bruising fight between the three or four frontrunners. Usually what would happen at this point is that one of them would start to generate "momentum" and start to be seen as the inevitable nominee. As more and more states voted in their primaries, the field would dwindle until only one remained. Then at some point, the single remaining frontrunner would get the magic number of delegates to the convention (50% plus one) and be the unofficial nominee. Any state which voted after this point would be completely irrelevant to the process.

Problem was, states got tired of being irrelevant. So they moved their primaries up to the front of the line. In 2008, as many as half the states could vote on the same day (Feb. 5th). But what if this precludes any kind of "momentum" for the frontrunner candidates? Four or five states will vote before 2/5, but what if the results are mixed? What if each candidate wins one state, places second in one other state, and third (or worse) in the rest? There would be no clear frontrunner going into 2/5.

This is the point where most pundits somehow assume that on 2/5, everyone in twenty or more states is going to speak with one voice, and the primary campaign will be over. I'm not so sure about this. What if we came out of 2/5 with results all over the map? What if two or three candidates appear to be splitting the delegates fairly evenly?

This would (ironically enough) mean that the states at the back of the line suddenly become the crucial battleground states for the nomination. The only place left to get that "momentum" would be in the states which voted in the middle or at the end of the schedule. But even that's not assured. And if no candidate is the clear nominee by convention time, then we would have a real convention for a change. All the delegates' votes in the first round would go for the candidates they are pledged to vote for; but then in subsequent rounds of voting, we would have absolute pandemonium.

Now, let me be clear here -- I'm not making rash predictions that this is the way it'll turn out. Not yet, at least.

But wouldn't it be more fun to watch than four days of endless and meaningless speechifying?

I must admit, I personally would be glued to the idiot box to see how it all shook out. And while it is admittedly a long-shot of a scenario, both parties seem to have several strong candidates... so it could indeed happen.

What would a real convention look like? We have to dig into the dim and distant past to get a glimpse. The following was reported by the iconoclastic H.L. Mencken from the Democratic convention in 1932, where F.D.R. was first nominated:

[July 1]

The all-night session was a horrible affair and by the time the light of dawn began to dim the spotlights, a great many delegates had gone back to their hotels or escaped to the neighboring speakeasies. When the balloting began shortly after 5 a.m. scores of them were missing and the fact explained some of the worst delays in the voting....

The way the tide of battle was going was revealed dramatically by the attitude of the leaders on the two sides. All during the infernal night session the Roosevelt men had been trying to wear out and beat down the opposition, and to push on to a showdown. They opposed every motion to adjourn, and refused every other sort of truce. They wanted to get through with the speeches as soon as possible, but they were confident enough to be still willing to match speech with speech, and they did so until daylight.

. . .

...all of the nine candidates had to be put in nomination, and when they had been put in nomination all of them had to be seconded, not once, but two, four, six or a dozen times. Worse, their customers had to parade obscenely every time one of them was launched and some of the parades ran to nearly an hour.

Here, one gang helped another. The Texans, who had a band, lent it to every other outfit that had a candidate, and it brayed and boomed for Ritchie, Byrd, Reed and Al Smith quite as cruelly as it performed for Garner. This politeness, of course, had to be repaid by its beneficiaries, and with interest. The Byrd band, clad in uniforms fit for Arctic exploration, did not let up for hours on end. And while it played one tune, the band of the Texans played another, and the official band in the gallery a third, and the elephantine pipe-organ a fourth. At one stage in the uproar a male chorus also appeared, but what it sang I can't tell you, nor which candidate it whooped and gargled for.

. . .

[July 2]

The actual nomination of Roosevelt after the turmoils of the all-night session went off very quietly. The delegates appeared in the hall all washed up, with clean collars, pressed suits and palpable auras of witch hazel and bay rum. The scavengers of the stadium had swept up the place, the weather had turned cool and there was the general letting down that always follows a hard battle. No one had had quite enough sleep, but everyone had had at least some.

. . .

Senator Reed spoke of the time as "this afternoon," though it was actually nearly ten o'clock at night. But no one noticed, for the all-night session had blown up all reckoning of time and space.

Doesn't that sound a lot more interesting than the usual sanitized-for-television pap we have been wont to receive in recent decades?


Finally, I'd like to close by touching on a subject I will most likely return to in the future. I read two excellent and interesting articles this week speculating on who is yet to jump into the race. The first, from John Zogby (here at Huffington Post) is rather limited as it only considers Al Gore on the Democratic side, and Newt Gingrich for the Republicans. The second, written by Lawrence O'Donnell (also a frequent Huffington Post contributor), addresses the "dream candidate" syndrome more broadly. (It also contains a heartbreaking anecdote for West Wing fans, where Martin Sheen refuses to consider running for office. He's not a politician, he says, he just plays one on TV.) But if any of the non-declared heavyweights (Gore, Gingrich, or Fred Thompson) do decide to make a late run for it, it may increase the chances for a convention that actually performs the work of choosing a nominee.

In any case, both articles also bring up a third scenario: New York City Mayor Bloomberg entering the race as a third-party candidate, possibly with the anti-war GOP senator Chuck Hagel on the ticket. Bloomberg, it appears, is made out of money. He has speculated that if he enters the race, he would pony up a billion dollars (yes, that's "billion," with a "b") of his own money for the run. That may be more than all the other candidates combined raise for their campaigns, so it's easy to see why people are taking him seriously. My favorite editorial cartoonist, Tom Toles, sums the situation up nicely.

Conventional wisdom on his entry to the race has not coalesced yet; opinions are all over the map. Personally, I think Bloomberg's presence in the race would just about guarantee a Democratic victory, but (as I said) I'll return to this subject in the future.

If either scenario plays out (open conventions, or Bloomberg/Hagel running), one thing is for sure: it will give political commentators, editorial cartoonists, and late-night comics an absolute gold mine of subject material. Call me biased, but I just don't see that as a bad thing!


[Footnote #1: To see absolutely hilarious "top 20 candidates" lists -- the funniest things I've seen in quite a while -- check out both this Republican list and this Democratic list.]

[Footnote #2: For political wonks who are following the fired U.S. Attorney scandal closely, one of the fired attorneys -- David Iglesias -- will be taking questions live on the web today at 12:30 PM (Eastern) on the Washington Post website.]


[Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.]

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