A Contested Convention Won’t Kill Democracy

by Jonah Goldberg
Will They Order Off Menu in Cleveland?

Now that the possibility of an open convention is becoming more and more plausible or even probable, various folks are starting to wax indignant over the notion that the convention might pick someone other than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Sean Hannity is quite worked up about the possibility. So is Newt Gingrich. I just listened to Tucker Carlson on Fox vent about the undemocratic outrage such a move would represent. And then of course there’s the always-uplifting conversation on Twitter.

A few points, in no particular order:

1. Tucker this morning made a sincere case on Fox News that a convention that goes for a “fresh face” (to borrow Karl Rove’s phrase) would be declaring the votes of primary voters “meaningless.” Voters have an expectation that they will decide the nominee, and this would negate that. Tucker’s correct, of course. They do have that expectation and that expectation has been confirmed for the last 40 years. But before that such expectations were routinely thwarted — not by mustache-twirling villains, mind you, but by the natural consequences of political conflict. The delegate battle between Reagan and Ford wasn’t evil, it was politics according to the rules.

2. It is kind of strange to hear all of this fetishization of unfiltered democracy from conservatives who, in other circumstances, can be counted on to point out that America is a “republic” not a simple democracy. And yet I keep hearing how we must not negate the will of the people! The people decide! Etc. Newt and Hannity talk in this vein a lot. But you know what? Senators used to be elected by state legislatures. Indeed in some quarters of the right it is not uncommon to hear folks lament the passage of the 17th Amendment. Were all of the senators prior to the 17th Amendment illegitimate? Even today, we do not expect senators to take a poll for their every vote. We expect senators and congressmen to exercise their judgment (“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion,”sayeth Edmund Burke). Well, it just so happens that delegates have the opportunity to exercise their judgment as well. When? Well, specifically and most relevantly, they get to exercise their judgment when not enough voters rally to a single candidate. I understand what Tucker is saying when he says that people expect the person with the most votes to get the nomination, but that’s neither how it works nor how it should work. Some times popular expectations are simply wrong, and I see no reason to excessively pander to them.

3. Sean Trende explained this very well. An excerpt:

The GOP has required that its nominees receive a majority of the vote from its delegates for 160 years now. And this requirement has been consequential: Along the way, multiple candidates have received a plurality of the vote, yet failed to become the nominee. For example (note: The following percentages are of votes cast, not of the total number of delegates, many of whom would abstain in early rounds): William Seward (1860, 41.5 percent of the vote); James G. Blaine (1876, 45.9 percent); Ulysses S. Grant (1880, 41.3 percent); John Sherman (1888, 33.9 percent); Leonard Wood (1920, 45.5 percent); Frank Lowden (1920, 41.5 percent); Tom Dewey (1940, 36.1 percent). Since 1952, every Republican nomination has been decided on the first ballot.

The common rejoinder I hear is that the will of the people will have been thwarted if Trump wins the most votes, but is not the nominee. This is pure and simple nonsense. There is no expression of the “people’s will” with a plurality of the vote, especially when it is somewhere in the 30 percent range (as Trump’s is).

Trende goes on to explain that candidates who came in third or fifth may in fact be more of a consensus candidate than the person who came in first. You might want to clip and save his op-ed as this argument ain’t going away.

4. Where I really object is the suggestion that a contested convention would render the votes of primary-goers “meaningless.” How so? A contested convention demonstrates exactly how important it is to vote in the primaries. I can certainly imagine Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or literally any other candidate saying at a primary-eve rally, “Remember, you really have to vote tomorrow. If you don’t vote, if I don’t have a clear majority of the delegates coming out of this state, a brokered convention becomes more likely. And if that happens the establishment can simply anoint whomever they want!”

(By the way you can insert any villainous entity you like instead of “establishment” — RINOs, libertarians, social conservatives, Romulans, Skrulls, C.H.U.D.s, whoever — the point remains the same).

You could also make the case that one of the great things about contested convention is that it actually teaches not just voters, but party members, that they are more than props. All of a sudden it matters who the delegates are. It also matters who votes in a lot of states normally considered afterthoughts and foregone conclusions. Republican votes in places like California and New York normally don’t matter.Now they do — a lot. The reality on the ground is closer to the exact opposite of the complaints coming from Gingrich, Carlson and Hannity. Primary votes matter more in this primary, especially in the later primaries, than any time in our lifetime. If you don’t think that’s true, ask the campaigns.

5. All of that said, I do think it is unlikely that the delegates will pick someone other than Cruz or Trump. I also think that’s probably as it should be. I take that view not out of some misguided notion that a plurality candidate is more democratically legitimate. I take that view because the vast majority of delegates will be Trump or Cruz delegates and they will not calmly abide some effort to impose an alternative on them. The problem isn’t that the “establishment” would be defying the will of the voters, it’s that it would be defying the will of the delegates — and the delegates decide the rules!

6. And that’s why delegate psychology is everything. As I’ve been saying for months, the only way the delegates order off-menu is if the balloting goes way, way, way too long (which I suspect it won’t, but it could). If Trump fails on the first ballot, conventional wisdom holds that he will start leaking delegates, maybe a lot of them. If Cruz can consolidate them, he could win on the second or third ballot. I still think that’s the most likely scenario, which would be fine by me.

But what if Cruz can’t close the deal? Trump hemorrhages delegates but Cruz doesn’t pick up enough of them to get over the top. The balloting goes on. And on. And on. The convention goes days over its allotted time, all on national TV (with Hugh Hewitt screaming into his microphone “I told you so!”). At some point the psychology on the floor probably changes — as does the psychology of the voters at home. Instead of “My Guy Has To Win” other impulses and motivations come to the fore. “My Guy Has To Get Something” or “Your Guy Has To Lose” start competing with “We’ve Gotta End This Thing” and “We Need Someone Electable in November.”

At some point a None-of-the-Abover just might seem pretty attractive to enough delegates. And you know what? That would be fine too. It would certainly be fun to watch. I completely understand why Ted Cruz wants to shut down all of this talk, and given his campaign’s organizational skills and foresight, I suspect he’s doing everything he can to avoid anything like this scenario, as well he should. But the point remains: Conventions can do whatever the attendees of the convention want to do, because that’s how small-“r” republicanism works at the end of a small-“d” democratic process.

7. Oh, one last thing: Why haven’t I mentioned Kasich? Because I don’t think there’s any way he gets the nomination at the convention (as I write in my column today). If the delegates get to the point where they start contemplating abandoning both Cruz and Trump, there’s no way they all say, “That leaves us no choice but to pick Kasich.” If you don’t like the two entrées on the menu, you don’t settle by ordering the appetizer you really can’t stand. If it gets to the point where the delegates are willing to overlook the “will of the voters,” they’ll look far beyond the guy who only won his home state.

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