Dark Horses And Other Extinct Species

Matt Glassman has a really good point that there’s a real difference between talking about a “dark horse” candidate and talking about a potential deadlocked convention. He’s right: these two things are conceptually different. Could a dark horse emerge from a deadlocked convention? Sure, it’s possible. But it’s more likely that one of the current candidates would win. The whole discussion, meanwhile, just shows again how difficult it is to use the vocabulary developed for the convention (that is, pre-1972) system while discussing modern contests. For one thing: remember, before candidates had to run in primaries and caucuses and before they had to file with the FEC, the whole question of who was running and who wasn’t was a lot murkier than it is now. Or: the pre-convention period was sort of similar to the first three years of the invisible primary these days, when it’s not always easy to know who is a candidate and who is not.

Matt doesn’t think much of my nightmare scenario of one or more candidate’s delegates bolting the convention:

I don’t see this as a possibility, even conditional on a deadlocked convention…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 voters were acting at least plausibly rationally, in an attempt to push the election in 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. 

I’m going to stick up for my argument a bit. The thing is: Matt’s objections are also objections to getting to a deadlocked convention in the first place. So if they really reach Tampa with no resolution, then that means that the party didn’t unify around one candidate during the primaries and caucuses, and they didn’t work something out during the two months between Utah and Tampa, and they didn’t work out anything in the first days of the convention. If all that happens, then either the rules and norms of the game are somehow getting in the way of cooperation (contrary to what I and some others believe, which is that the rules and norms of the game facilitate cooperation), or that there really is some sort of serious schism either predating the nomination battle or caused by it.

So basically, if we grant the implausible premise of a deadlocked convention…I’m going to say that all bets are off, and lots of chaotic outcomes are very possible. Including the possibility that some of the actors involved may not behave very rationally at all. For two reasons: one is the emotions of the moment, but another is that a lot of the delegates are probably not very sophisticated or experienced political actors at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.