Saturday, February 9, 2008

What would a brokered convention look like? Part III

This is the part III of a four-part series on what a brokered convention would look like. (Part I, an introduction to the concept, is here, and Part II, a case study of the 2006 Liberal Party convention of Canada, is here). This part explores the likelihood of a brokered convention this year. The final part (posted next weekend) will explore how it could unfold.

At this point, we can lop off some hypotheticals that were in play when this series started:

  • The Republicans will not have a brokered convention, unless John McCain dies in the next six months. I can't imagine that Mike Huckabee will dominate all the contests until the end of the season, then team up with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to torpedo McCain at the convention. I'd love it, but don't think it will happen.
  • The Democrats will have a nominee with a majority of pledged delegates.

At the outset, I thought a brokered convention could most likely happen because three strong candidates would last deep into the season. As we know, however, John Edwards and Mitt Romney didn't catch fire. Edwards supposedly will go into Denver controlling 26 of the 4049 delegates. However, that is an estimate. The January event in Iowa merely elected delegates from the precinct level to upcoming county, then state conventions. With Edwards out of the race, those early-stage delegates could end up deciding to throw in with a remaining candidate. In other words, Edwards may go into Denver with even less than the .64% of the delegates that he already has.

The greatest likelihood for a brokered convention is thus the following scenario:
  • Neither candidate has enough pledged delegates to win nomination without relying on ex-officio "superdelegates";
  • There is enough tension or vagueness about the superdelegates' role that no one candidate has an overwhelming number of them;
  • No deal has been struck.

To examine each precondition in turn:

Neither candidate has enough pledged delegates to win nomination without relying on ex-officio "superdelegates";

I have argued that neither Clinton nor Obama will enter into the convention with an absolute majority of delegates.

Given that most delegates from here on in (in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas) will be awarded in equitable primaries rather than loathsome caucuses, it is difficult to imagine Clinton or Obama harvesting over 62% of the remaining delegates who are tied to primary or caucus results. These pledged delegates make up only 80% of the votes at the Democratic Convention in Denver. The other 20% are functionaries and elected officials who are so-called "super-delegates".

I am presuming in this analysis that any attempt to seat the (overwhelmingly pro-Hillary) delegates from Michigan and Florida would fail. Obama's delegates would vote against, and would reach a majority with the help of party functionaries looking to enforce the rules that those states flouted.

Unless either of them wins over 62% of the remaining delegates, they will enter short of the necessary number. Given the closeness of primaries thus far, and the startling demographic polarization of the process this year by race, gender, income, and age, I rate this precondition likely.

There is enough tension or vagueness about the superdelegates' role that no one candidate has an overwhelming number of them.

While some superdelegates have voluntarily tied their vote to that of their state or district (CA Senator Barbara Boxer is one), most others such as Senators Kerry and Kennedy have not. There are 796 of these superdelegates, and 354 have publicly committed. About 60% of those (234) have committed to Hillary.

While superdelegates can change their mind at will, they need a good reason to do so. The idea of changing one's commitments makes one untrustworthy in the eyes of all...if you're going to just blow with the wind, how much is your support really worth? Keeping in mind that most of these people are either chairs or vice-chairs of state parties or elected officials, that is not a decision to be taken lightly at all. (Genghis Khan once killed an enemy soldier for failing to show proper loyalty when he offered to betray his commander. The same principle would apply here, and the punishment is political death).

Though Obama's recent promotion to frontrunner may garner him more superdelegates, we can expect that those people will be roughly evenly split. Even if Obama continues to score well, though, remember that many of these functionaries came into power under Bill Clinton and also value partisan loyalty. For that reason, Hillary will likely be overrrepresented among them.

Furthermore, the fact that these superdelegates corrode the democratic sheen of the nominee selection process is clearly discomforting to many of them. Donna Brazile, a voluble CNN talking head, has commented on this. Indeed, superdelegates explicitly tying ones vote to popular will indicates this feeling is widespread ( MN Rep. Tim Walz is another example).

For a brokered convention to happen at all, there must be a "third option" that takes enough of a bite that an evenly split remainder can't reach 50%. Given Edwards has 26 delegates, the most likely addition to that would be votes from superdelegates not ready to put Obama or Hillary over the top for these reasons. A dozen votes of "uncommitted" or a symbolic choice such as Al Gore or John Edwards would do the job. Then the chaos sets in. It is conceivable that a dozen or so superdelegates not wanting to be the ones who short-circuit the democracy of the process would choose this option.

This discomfort and division may well leave superdelegates' status and role up in the air as we come to convention. I rate the chance of this precondition existing as somewhat likely.

The final essential provision for a Democratic brokered convention is this: No deal has been struck

The final event on the nomination calendar is the Puerto Rico caucus on June 8th. The final major event is the May 20th Oregon primary. The Democratic National Convention opens on August 25th. That gives us 78 days before the convention starts during which we'll have nearly precise delegate counts.

Conventional (ha!) wisdom says that a brokered convention would be exciting, and bad for the party. As DNC chair and godlike human Howard Dean said,:

The idea that we can afford to have a big fight at the convention and then win the race in the next eight weeks, I think, is not a good scenario.

I think we will have a nominee sometime in the middle of March or April. But if we don't, then we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement, because I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention -- that would not be good news for either party

Obama and Clinton have strengths in different states, and on different issues. They have different surrogates. A presidential campaign is a massive and expensive undertaking, and requires time to get going. If we don't have a nominee until late August, it will be too late. Furthermore, winning at a brokered convention will mean that somebody got the nomination through working the process. There will be many hard feelings to heal, and some of them won't heal.

The Democratic Party knows that. The eminences grises of the party -- Howard Dean, Al Gore, George Mitchell, Dick Gephardt, Jimmy Carter -- know that. The overwhelming interest of the party and its members is to make a deal. To use a phrase we'll be hearing more and more, to "lock Hillary and Obama in a room, and leave them there until a deal is done." While passionate supporters would be let down, such a deal would make reconciliation easier.

While I don't know what such a deal would look like (but interesting speculation can be found here). At the end of the day, though, these two are professionals. Obama is still young, and Hillary Clinton isn't past her due date either. Bullishly continuing would make many enemies in Congress and in the party, all for a severely reduced chance at winning in November. I think at some point they make the deal. So, to review:

For a brokered Democratic convention, we need:
-Neither candidate with enough pledged delegates to reach the 2,025 mark - LIKELY;
-Sufficient tension or vagueness about the superdelegates' role so their disposition is unsure - SOMEWHAT LIKELY
-No deal has been struck - UNLIKELY

All told, I would set the odds of a brokered convention at 1 out of 3 because I would expect a compromise to be found in June or July. However, I could well be wrong. Next week, I game out the scenario for such a brokered convention in Denver Debacle: Democrats Divided.

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