Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Brokered GOP Convention?

With the results of yesterday's GOP primaries in FL and the Midwest, Donald Trump is on track to secure a plurality of the national delegates, but not a majority. This matters as the convention rules state that the winning candidate must receive the majority of all votes cast. Thus, even if Trump captures, say, 45% of the delegate votes, alone that will not be enough to secure the nomination. Moreover, if present trends continue, even though highly favorable to Trump, that will be the most likely scenario when the convention comes to order in Cleveland.

So what happens then?

Here is an opportunity to use game theory and outside thinking as a means of guiding our projections.

First, let's get procedures out of the way. Nearly all states have rules requiring that delegates pledged to a given candidate must give that candidate their vote on the first round of voting. In addition to pledged delegates, who make up the bulk of convention voters, there are also so-called "super delegates," high-ranking party officials who are free to vote for whom they wish. If Trump is close to securing a majority, it is possible that these super delegates will vote for him en bloc in an effort to ensure as unified a party as possible. They might reason thusly: Trump, owing to his numbers and intensity of support, is likely to win the nomination in the end. So all that is gained by forcing multiple ballots is disunity and rancor. Since neither of these aspects helps the GOP to win the election, it is better to look forward, reason back and vote for Trump right from the outset.

But Trump looks to fall short of a margin where only a few super delegates will put him over the top. In which case, there will be more than one ballot in all likelihood. In theory, that makes it anyone's election since delegates from many states are free to vote for whom they will after the first ballot. John Kasich recently hired consultants from Reagan's unsuccessful bid to unseat Ford in 1976, in hopes that they will help him to secure the nomination by this second choice route. Kasich faces huge obstacles in this.

The first is Mitt Romney, or rather, Romney's rules. Technically, each convention gets to set its own rules, something done by the powerful Rules Committee. Often, however, these rules are a carryover from the past, and that may help Trump. Romney, in the 2012 race, changed the rules so that, as a pre-condition for nomination, the winning candidate must have won 8 states during the primary race. It looks like only one candidate will meet this hurdle, Trump. Of course, the 2016 Rules Committee could set aside this rule if it wished. But the Rules Committee's membership depends on the delegate count, and here Trump's plurality could be enough. Merely by blocking any change in the status quo, Trump's forces on the Rules Committee can, in effect, create a situation whereby he would be the only candidate eligible for the nomination.

But let's imagine that the other candidates manage to pool their forces to overturn the Romney Rule. Can Kasich now win? The answer is probably not, as even a cursory use of our WITS would suggest. The exact identity of the delegates representing each candidate is determined via statewide caucuses and the like. But these people tend to be among the most committed and passionate for their candidate. Such people do not change their votes easily nor without a good reason. Consider what Kasich must overcome: He must suspend the Romney Rule, stop Trump on the first ballot and then, and then, somehow convince the many, many Trump delegates to shift their votes to Kasich while holding his existing delegates firm.

But what argument can he make to the Trump delegates to get them to switch votes? He cannot argue support from the popular will, for he has lagged badly in most primaries, save for Ohio. He cannot argue that he is the more electable candidate, for the same reasons. He cannot argue that such an outcome is fair or just since, for Trump supporters, it plainly is not.

Simply put, it is hard to imagine any argument more likely to sway Trump voters toward Kasich rather than the reverse. Indeed, it is far easier to conjure up arguments "for the good of the party" that cause non-Trump support to defect than Trump support to defect.

Which leaves only one other path to grasp at--the mysterious "party bigwigs" hijacking the convention and imposing their own preferred candidate. Such a script is undeniably dramatic and interesting, and seems to be the last slender reed at which the anti-Trump forces are grasping, but it does not pay much attention to the strategic motivations of these bigwigs. To impose such a solution, the bigwigs would have to coalesce around their preferred candidate, no easy thing. Then, these same bigwigs would still somehow have to secure the votes of the Trump delegates and suspend the Romney Rule. All of this is very hard, likely impossible.

But what if it were possible? Then would it happen? The answer, even in that case, is probably not. These political bigwigs gained their position by having decent judgment about the electorate, at least within the GOP. So why would they bet their political lives on some anti-Trump candidate like Mitt Romney? Trump might run as a third party in the face of such intrigue, and many would follow his banner. This would almost certainly give the election to the Democrats, hardly worth the massive expenditure of social capital that would be required to hijack Trump. Even if the bigwigs see Trump as unelectable, their own political skins matter a great deal, and those skins are not well served by spurning the Trump branch of the GOP.

Then there is the bigger risk---by "stealing the election" in the eyes of Trump supporters, the fissures within the GOP would be on display for all the world to see. Such fissures are dangerous, especially when dealing with someone as charismatic and unpredictable as Trump. The party bigwigs are only bigwigs so long as their is a powerful GOP. When American parties have disappeared from the scene, as the Whigs did in the 1850s, it occurs because of fracture, not because some new party has appeared fully-fledged. And this, more than anything else, is something the bigwigs do not want.

So while it is fun to think about a convention that is raucous and unpredictable, while it is fun to speculate about dark horse candidates appearing from some unexpected quarter, while it is fun to contemplate a deus ex machina by party elders seeking to restore sanity, it's all very unlikely to come to pass, once one thinks through the strategic possibilities. For better or worse, Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee, probably on the first ballot and even despite not having a majority of delegates.

But these people tend to be among the most committed and passionate of partisans favoring their particular candidate. Indeed,