While there have been no assassinations or riots so far, the twists and turns easily surpass anything we’ve experienced over the last 40-plus years.
And it isn’t nearly over yet.
For decades, political aficionados have fantasized about a presidential nominating convention that goes beyond a single ballot. That hasn’t happened since the Democrats took three tries to nominate Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Now, though, the odds are at least 50/50 on the Republicans delivering some form of multi-ballot scenario in Cleveland in July.
Of the remaining Republican candidates, only frontrunner Donald Trump still has a credible path to a first ballot delegate majority. But that path is getting distinctly narrower thanks to his mistakes and the surprising durability of his main rival, Ted Cruz.
Although considered a very unlikely nominee 12 months ago, Cruz has run a savvy campaign characterized by careful planning, meticulous organization and a relentless ability to stay on-message. One may not like him, but he’s proving a dangerous man to underestimate. While the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio may have attracted early attention, Cruz is the guy still standing in April.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to be ever the opportunist, having lately adopted the argument that the nomination should simply go to whoever wins a delegate plurality. As he colourfully put it, the 1,237 required for a majority is “a random number that somebody set.”
That, of course, is pure nonsense. But, as is often the case with Trump, there’s a legitimate point lurking somewhere below the overblown rhetoric.
Here’s the issue.
While Trump is winning votes – and thus delegate pledges – in primaries and caucuses, there’s no guarantee that those delegate slots will actually be filled by Trump supporters. Given the convoluted mechanics of how actual people are selected, there’s a strong prospect that many of them will be party insiders. In other words, nominally pro-Trump delegates may well be the very establishment types he has vociferously run against!
The implications are obvious. If Trump falls short of an initial majority, these establishment ringers will abandon him as soon as their legal support requirement is fulfilled. And in many states, that requirement only applies to the first ballot.
What you’d normally expect to see in a multi-ballot contest is the lower ranked candidates dropping off and the frontrunner attempting to add sufficient support to get over the top before someone else caught him. But you wouldn’t expect to see immediate abandonment of the frontrunner due to many of his delegates being disloyal ringers. And if you saw such a thing happen, you’d be sorely tempted to think that, even if technically compliant with the rules, the process was democratically illegitimate.
And there’s another even more eyebrow-raising scenario floating around.
In it, a convention heavily populated by the establishment contrives to bypass both Trump and Cruz and install one of its own as the nominee. The current favourite for that parachuted role is the house speaker and erstwhile vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, but the prospect of a Mitt Romney resurrection is also talked about. And on the very furthest fringes of fantasy, the idea of foisting the hapless Jeb Bush on the party gets the odd mention.
Given that, as of this writing, Trump and Cruz have collectively won 65 per cent of the vote and almost 80 per cent of the delegates, this scenario has an inherently surreal quality. Yes, the party can finagle the rules to theoretically make it happen. And the anti-establishment revolt manifested by the primary and caucus voters must surely be galling for the hitherto powers that be.
Still, the idea that the results of the extensive primary and caucus season can be blithely disregarded seems problematic. What, for instance, would the party say to its voters? And if it loses the presidential election next fall – as it likely would – what kind of credibility would its 2020 candidate selection process have for anyone?
Perhaps whoever coined the phrase about living in interesting times didn’t know the half of it. Political junkies are going to have an exciting summer.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.