Saturday, March 5, 2016

1860 squared

Republican insiders are desperate to keep Donald Trump from becoming their presidential nominee. At the moment, their efforts are focused on keeping Trump from winning an outright majority of delegates. If they succeed, that would put us in the fabled realm of the "brokered convention", where behind-the-scenes dealmaking would allow the Republicans to deny Trump the nomination and award it instead to a mutually agreeable compromise candidate. The model is the 1920 Republican convention, which was deadlocked among several candidates until Warren G. Harding emerged as an acceptable compromise candidate, receiving the nomination.

The trouble with the "brokered convention" scenario is that it doesn't always work. The most notorious example is the 1860 Democratic Convention. In 1860 the slavery issue haunted American politics like a vast, scary, haunty thing. It had already broken up the Whig Party, and now it was the Democrats' turn. At their convention in Charleston in April, proslavery Southern Democrats were adamantly opposed to the frontrunner, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and they successfully blocked his nomination. However, the proslavery faction were not strong enough to put forward a candidate of their own, and neither side could agree on a compromise candidate. After 57 ballots, the convention adjourned without nominating a candidate.

Six weeks later, the Democrats convened again in Baltimore. This time, the proslavery delegates walked out, and the remaining delegates nominated Douglas. The proslavery delegates held their own convention, where they nominated Vice-President John Breckenridge. Thus, there were two different Democratic candidates, splitting the vote and allowing the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to win the general election.

Now the Republican establishment is faced with not one, but two outsider insurgent candidates, Trump and Texas Senator Ted "Backpfeifengesicht" Cruz, both of whom are running ahead of their own preferred candidate, Florida Senator Marco "Empty Suit" Rubio. Neither Trump nor Cruz is likely to back down and support an establishment candidate, or each other for that matter. So the Republicans may well find themselves facing their own deadlocked convention.

If we see a repeat of 1860, we could be looking at not two, but three subsequent "rump" conventions. The regular convention reconvenes in Cleveland in August after the Rules Committee has rejiggered the eligibility requirements to ensure a Rubio nomination. Both Trump and Cruz boycott the Cleveland convention and hold their own conventions. The Make America Great Again convention meets in Las Vegas and nominates a Trump-Christie ticket; the Trust in God convention meets in Houston and nominates a Cruz-Huckabee ticket; and the regular convention in Cleveland nominates a Rubio-Kasich ticket.

The result is chaos on an epic scale. Which candidate ends up on which state ballot? It'll be up to each state's Secretary of State whether to put one, two, or all three Republicans on the general election ballot. If Trump isn't on, say, the Pennsylvania ballot, then a lot of Trump supporters will stay home on election day, which would be very bad news for downticket Republicans, especially for incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey's re-election. Multiply that by 50, and you get a nightmare scenario for the Republicans. Losing to Hillary Clinton would be the least of their problems; they might well lose control of both houses of Congress and more state legislative seats than you can shake a short vulgarian finger at.

I'm not saying this is what's going to happen, but I do believe that it might happen, if the Republicans get their "brokered" convention.

Be careful what you wish for.

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