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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Daily Strategist

July 17, 2018

Brokered Convention Redux

If, as appears very likely, Al Gore soon pours icy water on efforts to draft the Nobel Laureate for president, you can expect Gore enthusiasts to begin talking about a different scenario, in which a deadlocked Democratic Convention turns to the former vice president as a unity candidate. And just today, Kevin Drum revived blogopsheric talk that the many vulnerabilities of just about everyone in the Republican presidential field could produce a brokered convention there as well (John Judis made a more specific case for that possibility last month). So it’s as good a time as any to weigh in definitively on the possibility of an uncontrolled nominating convention (particularly on our side), and what that would mean.
First, let’s take the necessary look at history. The last multi-ballot convention was the Democratic event in 1952 (unless you count the multi-ballot Veep contest in 1956), long before the widespread emergence of primaries. The last convention when no candidate arrived without a clear majority of delegates was in 1976, when Gerald Ford needed a last-minute capture of the Mississippi Delegation to beat Ronald Reagan.
There have been two Democratic conventions in the modern era when extensive unhappiness with a putative nominee fed convention procedural fights aimed at unlocking committed delegates. In 1972, an Anybody-But-McGovern alliance of defeated candidates sought unsuccessfully to overturn California’s winner-take-all delegate selection rule, which would have seriously undermined McGovern’s convention majority. And in 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings fell into the teens (and after he lost virtually every late primary to Ted Kennedy), there was an unsuccessful effort to make all delegates free agents.
Since 1980, the closest thing we’ve seen to any real political drama in a nominating convention was in 1988, when Jesse Jackson secured a prime speaking slot in exchange for a robust endorsement of Mike Dukakis, and perhaps in 1996, when Bob Dole disclaimed the abortion language in his party’s platform.
So recent precedents don’t offer any evidence supporting a truly deliberative convention, and the question becomes: is there anything about the dynamics of this particular presidential cycle that could turn everything upside down?
There are, as it happens, three developments that could theoretically produce a situation in which no candidate has a stable majority going into the convention: (a) the radical front-loading and compression of the primary calendar, which under some scenarios could turn inconclusive early results into a total delegate count with no majority; (b) a subsequent lengthening of the period between delegate selection and the conventions, which increases the odds of a scandal or major gaffe striking the putative nominee and producing widespread “buyer’s remorse” prior to the formal nomination; and (c) the emergence of candidates (HRC and Obama among Democrats, and Giuliani and Romney among Republicans) whose financial resources are so large that they might be able to survive early setbacks and harvest enough delegates to keep the ultimate outcome in doubt, with a few breaks along the way.
So far I’ve been talking about both parties, but there are D and R variables that might affect prospects for a brokered convention. Republicans have gone less thoroughly towards the proportional delegate awards that might help strong second-place candidates keep hope alive, particularly in mega-events like the February 5 lollapalooza. And Democrats have Super-Delegates, the guaranteed spots for elected officials–more than a quarter of total delegates–who cannot be legally bound to candidates.
On this last point, Chris Bowers has plausibly argued that Super-Delegates are likely to put a kibosh on any late challenge to a Democratic front-runner. But it’s just as plausible that the Supers could tilt decisively against a front-runner who looks like a general election loser.
And all in all, I do think that the most likely of the unlikely scenarios for a brokered convention is one that involves a deeply wounded Democratic proto-nominee with a small majority of elected delegates whose weakness creates a revolt among Super-Delegates.
If that were to happen–and this is the one point I hope readers take away from this post–it’s important to understand that the infrastructure of national political conventions these days is completely incompatible with a return to a highly divisive, much less deliberative, event. Having worked in the script-and-speechwriting shops of the last five Democratic conventions, I can tell you that the whole show is a floating quadrennial operation that is turned over to the nominee and his or her staff, who exercise totalitarian control over every detail. The rules, platform, scheduling, and messaging functions of latter-day Conventions have long lost any independent status or power, as everything has been subjected to the relentless effort to utilize ever-shrinking media coverage to move general-election opinion polls a few points. I can’t even imagine how a convention could be planned and executed without a candidate in charge. And though I’m less familiar with Republican conventions, it’s reasonably clear they have become even more ruthlessly controlled (viz. the GOP’s decision in 2004 to kill most of the meaningless afternoon sessions that offered hundreds of elected officials and interest group poohbahs a brief moment of CSPAN coverage).
If it looks like either party is drifting towards a brokered convention in 2008, a lot of difficult decisions will have to be made to avoid total chaos. On the other hand, total chaos could at least boost those terrible convention television ratings, and maybe even make conventions matter again.


Democratic Strategy and the Ambivalent Public Opinion Data on Iraq

Ever since General Petraeus testified before Congress several weeks ago Democratic strategists have faced a complex challenge in interpreting the subsequent opinion polls on Iraq. On the one hand polls asking if the number of troops should be “decreased” or the troops “withdrawn” or if “deadlines” should be imposed continue to receive majority support. Yet at the same time, solid majorities of the electorate also offer their “support” or “approval” of the plan put forth by General Petraeus.
Now for many routine political purposes – campaign stump speeches, e-mail fundraising letters, rousing sermons to grass-roots supporters – ambiguous data like this are easy to handle – one just dismisses the incompatible poll data as a “distortion” and not the “real” public opinion.
Here’s how it’s done. Every politically aware person starts with a very firm gut feeling that he or she knows what the average person “really” thinks. We say to ourselves “If I could just talk to that average guy for 10 minutes across a kitchen table, I know he’d agree with me that the troops should come home. As a result, it’s obvious that adding the name of a General like Petraeus into a survey question just artificially biases the outcome. Poll questions without any well-known names included in them are a better measure of what the public “really” thinks about withdrawal”.
This kind of logic seems entirely reasonable until we happen to overhear the other side doing exactly the same thing. They say “I know if I could talk to that average guy for 10 minutes, he’d agree with me that he really doesn’t want America to lose this war. Vapid, hypothetical questions about when people wish the troops could come home are meaningless. They don’t indicate the consequences or describe the price of pulling out. The only “real” measure of public opinion on withdrawal from Iraq is the number of people who support or oppose the Petraeus plan.”
In practice what actually happens when poll data is ambiguous like this is that both sides just cherry-pick the polls and use only the data that supports their particular view – a process which ends up being more than slightly tedious. Politicians and commentators relentlessly throw opinion data at each other like World War I doughboys lobbing hand grenades across the trenches. Fortunately for the Dems for the last year or so the polls have generally contained as much or more data that that suggested support for prompt withdrawal as against it, making these rhetorical “poll wars” more or less a draw.
But for the serious formulation of Democratic political strategy, on the other hand, cherry-picking the data is not an acceptable solution. To make plans for the coming elections the Dems have to try to understand what the contradictory polling data actually indicates about the state of American public opinion and what the real balance between anti-war and pro-administration opinion really is.
Fortunately, last week Gallup released one of the methodologically clever studies they periodically pop up with – a study that goes a long way toward providing some useful answers.


Realignment in Virginia?

Virginia’s steady transformation from the reddest of red states to one leaning blue has been evident for a good while. But the National Committee for an Effective Congress, in an installment of its “Election Insider” series, has supplied a good summary of the political and demographic trends that have boosted Democratic prospects there, with updates on next year’s congressional campaigns in Virginia.


Gore the Laureate and Gore the Candidate

In case you somehow missed it, Al Gore was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the UN’s Integovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a consortium of about 3,000 scientists).
Given the timing, like it or not, the Nobel (along with the previous Oscar and Emmy) will create an intense moment of speculation about the possibility that Gore will now jump into or be dragged into the 2008 presidential race. But Chris Bowers today makes a cautionary point that goes beyond the usual efforts to divine Gore’s intentions or handicap his current standing: how seemly would it be for anyone to go quickly from Laureate to Candidate?

The problem here is that if Gore is going to run, any formal campaign announcement would have to take place within mere days of the Nobel announcement, as well as before the actual reception of the award. I just don’t think there is anyway to gracefully pull that off, from a social manners perspective. In that sense, all of the Nobel speculation might have hit the final nails in the coffin of any hope that Gore might run in 2008. How does one say something like this and not seem a little foolish: “the secret Norwegian elite thinks I am the best in the world–now you should too!” How does winning a Nobel Prize help launch a political campaign?

Good question, though one that from all the available evidence, Al Gore won’t have to confront.


A Bit More Light On Public Opinion and Iraq

There’s a useful new poll out, done by Celinda Lake’s firm for One Voice PAC, on public attitudes towards funding for the Iraq War.
In addition to the usual options of voting unconditionally for or against Bush’s supplemental appropriations request, this poll’s “third option” is worded a bit differently than most. Instead of messing around with timetables or dollar figures that probably don’t mean a lot to people, the poll tests support for the appropriation with the stipulation that funds can only be used to protect U.S. troops and contractors and withdraw them from Iraq. Overall, that option gets 47 percent support, compared with 22 percent for an unconditional denial of appropriations, and 23 percent for unconditional approval.
These findings, of course, still suffer from the fundamental problem that the only way Congress can “get to” the third option is to vote against any appropriations, and slug it out with Bush over a protracted period of time. If House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has indeed delayed the moment of truth on Iraq funding until January, then maybe pollsters can figure out a way to test that scenario. In any event, this poll indicates pretty decisive overall opposition to anything like a indefinite continuation of the war, with independent voters aligned much more closely with Democrats than with Republicans.
Lake released not only a poll, and a memo, but 200 pages of crosstabs. You can slog through them, or look at Paul Rosenberg’s summary over at OpenLeft. (On the regional splits, BTW, Rosenberg misreads a verticle for a horizontal crosstab, and concludes that support for unconditional funding is more than three times as high in the South as in the Northeast. Actually, the regional disparities are a lot smaller, with unconditional funding supported by 15% in the Northeast, 24% in the Midwest, 25% in the South, and 20% in the West.)


Can Dems Win Business Support?

The American Prospect is featuring an article by Paul Waldman, “The Dems’ Big Business Opportunity,” making a persuasive case that Democrats are in position to win broad support from pro-business voters, particularly with a few smart moves.
Much of Waldman’s argument is based on the GOP’s “stunning record of incompetence.” It’s not just the current Administration’s disastrous Iraq and foreign policy, which could provide a case study in mismanagement for the Harvard Biz School. He also cites a nicely-done eriposte study showing that, on a range of economic indicators important to business, such as GDP growth, unemployment, deficits and inflation, the average performance under Democratic Administrations has been superior to that of Republican Administrations. Waldman concedes that the facts won’t matter much to ideologues, but for rational and “responsible” business men and women, making this case might help Dems.
Waldman urges Dems to “approach business with a new grand bargain” and “change how they think and talk about corporations” a tall order for the Party of the Big Tent. He also counsels a more practicable wedge strategy to separate rational business people from the right-wing ideologues, so Dems can peel off a healthy portion of the former.
In his blog at the ITT List (In These Times) Adam Doster argues that Waldman underestimates the importance of taxes as a core issue of Big Business and adds that the “responsible” busineess leaders are already supporting Democrats. Doster sees slim business pickings now that the low-hanging fruit is being hauled away on donkey carts. Doster says Dems would do better to put the energy into promoting “populist policies.” Doster also flags Christopher Hayes’ Washington Monthly article “Revolt of the CEO’s,” which included this paragraph echoing Waldman’s thought on the possibility of a social contract business leaders could support:

“The corporate guys are beginning to think this is going to happen,” said Bill Galston, a senior policy adviser in the Clinton White House and a current fellow at the Brookings Institution, referring to health care and climate change legislation. “They are willing to make their peace with the welfare and regulatory state as long as they can have some say. What they don’t want is for the train to leave the station and they’re not in the first-class car.” The Chamber of Commerce’s Josten summed up his members’ views this way: “You want a seat at the table, because if you’re not at the table you may be on the menu.”

Of course the hat trick for Dems is to win business support without selling out organized labor, whose ground troops loom large in the weeks leading up to election day — or, to put it in moral terms, to win the confidence of business while remaining faithful Democrats.
I’m a little more optimistic than both Waldman and Doster that it can be done. It’s getting to the point, where honest, level-headed business folks have nowhere else to go than to the Democratic Party. Jackie Calmes’ Wall St. Journal article, “GOP Is Losing Grip On Core Business Vote, ” cited by Waldman, notes that 37 percent of the “professionals and managers” occupational category now identify themselves as Republican/Leaning Republican, a significant decline from the 44 percent of just three years ago, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted last month.
I anticipate Dems winning the largest percentage ever of small business men and women, few of whom could be much-impressed by what the GOP field and congressional candidates have offered in the way of health care reform thus far, or by their do-nothing prescriptions for the Iraq quagmire. All in all, ’08 is shaping up as a banner year for Democrats — and that’s good for business as well.


The Right’s Crazy Campaign Against the S-CHIP Kid

If you want to catch up on the red-hot controversy over the Frost family and the Right’s crazy and rapidly backfiring campaign to make them examples of the over-generosity of S-CHIP, you can review the whole story via a variety of ahead-of-the-curve posts by Ezra Klein, or read Jonathan Cohn’s summary at The New Republic. The facts are pretty unmistakable: S-CHIP exists to help struggling middle-class families like the Frosts, and every single talking point in the Right’s ignorant demonization of this family shows the dishonesty of conservative claims to care about people who don’t have access to affordable health coverage.


Iowa, Young-uns, and Obama

The staff post earlier today on the methodology and internals of the Des Moines Register‘s Iowa Poll led me to this rather startling discovery about the poll’s picture of the demographics of likely Democratic caucus-goers: Only 2 percent are under the age of 25, while 51 percent are over the age of 55.
Two percent under 25? Is that possible? Does the poll assume that Caucus Night will coincide with big episodes of Heroes or Grey’s Anatomy?
Given these numbers, the really amazing thing about the Iowa Poll results is that Barack Obama is still within striking distance of HRC. And to flip the issue around, even if the percentage of Caucus-goers under 25 turns out to be twice as high as the Iowa Poll suggests, all the media stories about Obama’s robust campus-based support in Iowa have been apparently been goosing a ghost. You don’t count if you don’t vote.


Trapping Themselves On S-CHIP

As the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Michigan yesterday illustrated, GOPers (with the partial exception of a confused-sounding Mike Huckabee) dutifully lined up in support of Bush’s veto of S-CHIP expansion legislation, defying both public opinion and the sensibilities of Sen. Charles Grassley, who happens to be from the first state in the nominating contest.
At the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus has a good write-up of where the candidates are, why they are there, and the price they may ultimately pay for treating a successful and highly popular health care program as “socialized medicine.”


Seniors Rule — Especially in Iowa

Just an observation, following-up on our staff post below on the Des Moines Register poll. Check out Patrick Healy’s article “New Program for Saving Is Proposed by Clinton” in today’s New York Times. An interesting coincidence that candidate Clinton, whose campaign is increasingly being described as a “juggernaut,” (see here, for example) comes out with an innovative federal “401K-style” program on the heels of of the Register poll showing 51 percent of the likely caucus-goers are over age 55. The hunch here is that Clinton’s exceptionally-alert strategists figured this out a long time ago, in addition to the fact that seniors always rule when it comes to turn-out percentage. Heck, the picture with Healy’s article alone almost tells the story. Don’t be surprised by a rash of “me too” proposals suddenly emerging from the rest of the Dem field.