They Hold Conventions, Don't They?


Matt, riffing on this Mark Schmitt post about the Clinton camp's ability to get the press to pretend that their candidate still has a chance at the nomination when she almost certainly doesn't:

The strangest thing about the twilight campaign of the past several weeks is that under any other circumstances, it just wouldn't be happening. Or, rather, it would be like the last few races that Mike Huckabee ran -- covered as an amusing sideshow. But because of the fact that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their close associates have been the leaders of the Democratic Party for so long at this point, they've been able to take a remarkably slender thread of hope and spin it into a full-fledged horse race. At this point, though, they're perpetrating something of a fraud on their many grassroots supporters who continue to invest money, time, and energy in an already-failed enterprise.

The bottom line, however, is that before the March primaries, Clinton looked doomed unless she could make up major ground in March. With all the March results in, Clinton hasn't made up any ground at all. That means she's doomed. The popular vote victory in the Texas primary is a nice moral victory for Clinton to console herself with, but the overall results just didn't create the kind of delegate count she needed to be viable.

But she isn't viable only if you assume the narrative that the Obama campaign has been pushing, in which the candidate with the most delegates at the end of the primary campaign wins the race regardless of whether he's reached the magic number of 2,025. Now, this narrative has a certain plausibility, but it's by no means the only narrative out there; indeed, if you'd asked me a few months ago what would happen if neither Obama nor Clinton reached 2,025 pledged delegates but both were within hailing distance of that number, I would have said "brokered convention," because that's what used to happen in these kind of circumstances. I'm a little murky on the exact details of the 1976 race (paging Michael Barone ...), but it's my impression that Gerald Ford was ahead in the delegate count going into the Republican convention, and that he had won many more primary votes than Ronald Reagan, who accumulated a lot of his delegates in less-than-democratic caucuses. But Ford wasn't far enough ahead to have clinched the nomination under party rules, and Reagan still made a play for the nomination at the convention, and nearly pulled it off. Which is how the primaries-plus-convention system is designed to work: If you don't accumulate a clear majority, you don't get to win on the first ballot, even if you have more delegates than everyone else. Thus Mike Huckabee's continued candidacy was a sideshow because John McCain was more or less guaranteed a first-ballot victory after Romney dropped out; if McCain's ability to reach the magic number had been in serious doubt after Super Tuesday, there would have been every reason to take Huck seriously, and Romney would have been a fool to quit the race in the first place.

Now obviously the Ford-Reagan race took place in a transitional period from the smoke-filled rooms of yore to the more democratic system of today, and it's entirely possible that if you re-ran the 1976 contest in our era, it would have been a Ford coronation at the convention, rather than a nip-and-tuck battle. But the nominating process still isn't perfectly democratic by any stretch, what with the caucuses in some states and the primaries in others, the arcane delegate-assignment rules, and of course the presence of the superdelegates. And it seems perfectly reasonable for the Clinton campaign to treat the race the way it would have been treated back in the day: As a contest that won't be settled until Denver, regardless of whether Barack Obama has won more votes and delegates than they have.

Photograph Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library