The Political Scenarios Leading to Wild Conventions...and Maybe an Unhappy Ending for President

Election '16

The Republican National Convention meets in Cleveland July 18 through 21. A week later, the Democrats gather in Philadelphia. Let’s look into the crystal ball and imagine the scenes.

In Cleveland, it may be a coronation of Donald Trump, but more likely, the GOP elite, which is belatedly getting its act together, will cause Trump to fall short of a first ballot victory by a few votes. Then things will get truly ugly.

Right now, Republicans have what game theorists call a collective action problem. If Cruz and Kasich could agree on a block-Trump alliance, each could ask his supporters to vote for whichever of the two is stronger in a given primary. Then, depending on who has more delegates, they could duke it out for the nomination in Cleveland, and maybe team up as a ticket.

Given that GOP primaries from here on are generally winner-take-all affairs, except in a few states that deliberately send lots of uncommitted delegates, such a tactical alliance could probably block Trump. Since he has never won an absolute majority in any primary (he came closest in Massachusetts of all places with 49.3 percent), the anti-Trump forces can presumably outvote the Trump forces if they can agree on a single candidate.

But if Kasich and Cruz don’t strike a deal, Trump could win a plurality of votes in most states, win a majority of delegates, and be the nominee. For now, however, let’s assume he falls just short. What then?

For all the mutual loathing of Trump, Cruz, and Kasich, it’s just possible that Cruz or Kasich would cut a deal with Trump to be the vice presidential nominee and put Trump over the top.

Donald Trump may be an incipient Mussolini but he knows how to make a deal. And I’d put nothing past Ted Cruz. On the other hand, the determination to nominate anybody but Trump will be fierce.

If Trump, with more delegates than anyone else but not quite a majority, is denied the nomination, all hell will break loose—literally. There will be more than a thousand angry Trump delegates in the hall. Trump has predicted—many would say encouraged—riots if he doesn’t get the nomination.

Meanwhile, outside the hall there will be tens of thousands of protestors appalled at Trump’s racism. There will be street confrontations between anti-Trump and Trump forces (maybe in brown shirts by then), making the police violence at the Chicago 1968 Democratic National Convention look tame. Expect the National Guard to be called in.

Cleveland has a large African American population, as well as a rainbow of lots of liberal students. Maybe holding the Republican convention there was not such a great idea.

And Ohio happens to be an open-carry state. Guns are allowed in public places. If gun-toting Trump and Cruz delegates are inside the hall, people could get killed.

Not a pretty picture of the GOP to present to America via national media.

I will come back to the post-nomination story in a moment. But first, what about the Democrats?

Superficially, the Philadelphia story will be similar. Most likely, about a thousand very disappointed Sanders delegates in the hall, and Sanders supporters demonstrating outside. But there the similarity ends.

There will be immense pressure on likely nominee Hillary Clinton to move even further in a progressive direction—from Sanders delegates, from Sanders himself, from Elizabeth Warren, and from all of the activist groups around the Democratic Party who have been so energized by the Sanders campaign. There will be pressure for a very anti-Wall Street platform, and pressure to name a progressive running mate.

I would be amazed if there is violence. Most of the violence directed at Occupy and at Black Lives Matter has come from police, not from demonstrators. After the GOP debacle in Cleveland, Democrats, even left-wing Sanders Democrats and socialists, will want to show that they are the grown ups, capable of being members of a functioning democracy and being part of a sane governing coalition.

I would also be amazed if Hillary Clinton does not go a very long way to accommodate the concerns and demands of the Sanders forces, since they are where the energy is. Her election literally depends on bringing them on board and avoiding a party split. If Hillary is welcoming, I’d be amazed if Bernie went away mad, or encouraged his young supporters to do so.

To be sure, some of the Sanders people will be dispirited and disaffected, but not most. The stakes this year are simply too high.

The analogy that comes to mind is 1968, when Democrats splintered and Richard Nixon sneaked in as winner. But this time the 1968 analogy fits the Republicans—if Democrats can avoid the cheap satisfaction of the circular firing squad.

However, there is one more awful wrinkle. Let’s go back to the Republicans in Cleveland. If Trump is the nominee, the establishment Republicans will very likely mount a third-party campaign. Conversely, if Trump has the most delegates and he is denied nomination, he will very likely run as an independent. So expect a three-way race, one way or the other.

And if either third-party candidate wins some states and no one gets an Electoral College majority, under the Constitution the election would be thrown into the (Republican) House to pick the next president. That would probably be House Speaker Paul Ryan.

This is a revolutionary year, but revolutions fail more often than they succeed. Wouldn’t it be the height of irony if after all the politicized anger at the shafting of working people—represented by Sanders on the left and (weirdly) by Trump on the right—the financial and political establishment managed to keep the lid on, with one of the most conventional right-wing and pro-corporate figures in American politics, Paul Ryan?

Indeed, my colleague Peter Dreier suggests two ways for Paul Ryan to become president, either as the compromise Republican nominee at a brokered convention, or if the decision is thrown into the House for the first time since 1824.

You say you want a revolution? Just imagine America under President Ryan.

I often quote the eminent British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, who studied the abortive nationalist and democratic European revolutions of 1848, all of which were crushed in short order: “It was a turning point of history, but history didn’t turn.”

Things don’t always come round right. This should be a year when Trump finally blows up the bogus Republican alliance between social conservatives and Wall Street billionaires who play the dog-patch base for suckers; a year when Sanderista activists finally blow up the Wall Street capture of the Democrats. It may yet happen.

But never underestimate the power of elites. Stay tuned, stay active, and stay vigilant.

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