As the US presidential campaign gets weirder and weirder, even at this early date, J BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates how it might turn out if a few things go just a bit differently than usual – the beating of a butterfly’s wings version of the US election to come.
By the time the US’s two major political party conventions had rolled around, it had become clear no candidate had locked up their respective nominations in either party. Increasingly, commentators and political insiders were steeling themselves for what might well be the reprise of those old-style brokered nominating conventions with their party bosses, smoke-filled rooms and whispered deals.
Well into the early years of the 20th century, boisterous, hard-fought nominating conventions had been, more often than not, the norm. Some conventions had even gone on to have dozens and dozens of ballots before a compromise candidate had finally emerged from the repeated votes. However, more recently, the party conventions had become largely ceremonial events. Instead of hard-fought elections between candidates for the nomination, they had effectively become the crowning of a candidate who had already secured a majority of the delegates for their convention. That candidate had become the party’s inevitable selection, after that gruelling round of primaries and caucuses that began in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina and then continued on through primaries and caucuses throughout the rest of the country. These primaries and caucuses were individual votes in each state where delegates committed to a particular candidate were picked, rather than in earlier conventions at which most delegates had been handpicked by party leaders – they were the ones who held the real balance of power in picking a presidential and vice-presidential candidate as they met in their iconic, already-mentioned smoke-filled backrooms.
But in 2016, virtually nobody had predicted that neither party would have settled on their preferred choice by the time their delegates met in their conventions at the end of the summer, 2016. Throughout the months before those gatherings, among Republicans, the surprising candidacies of both Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson continued to be popular wildcards. While less-successful candidates like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former New York governor George Pataki, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul began dropping out the race, Trump, Fiorina, Carson, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Ohio governor John Kasich, former Florida governor Jeb Bush continued doggedly to hang on. They each won various primaries or came close enough to a victory to claim proportional shares of the respective delegates. By the time the convention rolled around on 18 July for its three-day affair, Trump was still holding onto a slender lead in total delegates, followed by Rubio, Bush, Fiorina, Kasich and Carson – but no candidate held more than 30% of total delegates. And that was not nearly enough to claim the prize.
After five ballots on the second day of the convention, it was clear no winner was about to be selected. And after yet five more ballots, Carson finally gave his delegate support to Trump, while Rubio and Fiorina told their respective pledged delegates to shift to Kasich as the best choice of the remaining candidates. That left a three-way split among the leaders as Trump, Kasich and Bush each held around 30% of the total. The remaining 10% of the delegates were split among the remaining minnows still in the race.
Eventually, after a meeting of the top three candidates that went well into the early morning, Trump demanded the others’ support for his selection since he had, after all, continued to maintain his strong hold on popular opinion and support. As his so-called trump card, he showed the other two men the most recent polling among Republican Party supporters that had been carried out by four major polling organisations. (Trump’s operatives had obtained these results even before they had been publicly released.) These results showed that over 50% of those asked now believed a fundamental shift in their party and the government was crucial – and that he, The Donald, was the candidate to bring it about. This shift had come about just as unemployment had a minor uptick off of its previous declining trend line, and as military developments in Syria continued to worsen, despite an increased bombing campaign by western nations against Islamic State targets.
At that point, Bush, suffering with persistent summer flu, and increasingly desperate for a full night’s sleep, began to waver in his desire to grasp that elusive brass ring. In response to Trump’s diatribe, Bush eventually offered to withdraw from the race, but only if Trump would do so as well, and thereby let another candidate take the nomination. Increasingly insistent, Trump refused, and said in reply that he would go to the floor of the convention and call on delegates to support him – in response to the opinions of their party supporters across the country.
As the increasingly exhausted convention gathered yet again for the next morning’s balloting, just before the convention chair began to call the roll of states for their delegates to vote, Trump, in a move that startled everyone, strode up to the podium, took over the microphone, and in an unprecedented move for US political conventions, told the crowd, and the incredulous media covering the convention, that the assembled delegates were honour-bound to follow the dictates of their party’s supporters across the nation and that they must vote for him, based on the survey data he then read to them. There was pandemonium on the convention floor and order was only slowly restored for the 11th ballot. Delegates pledged to other candidates deserted their original candidates, and by the time the roll call for that last ballot had been concluded, Trump had secured some 60% of the vote and was the winner. The usual call to make it unanimous was, however, stillborn and delegates still pledged to Kasich, especially, began to drift away from the floor.
After Trump’s bold move, on the following day, his choice for the vice-presidential slot, Texas senator Ted Cruz, was selected by acclamation, although many of the assembled delegates had already left the convention in shock. A few days later, at a hastily convened rump meeting of the party’s elders, a very difficult, fraught decision was taken to withdraw formal party support for Trump on the grounds that he had traduced the convention rules and that he had undemocratically forced his selection against the party’s processes.
Instead, they decided on an unprecedented effort within the Grand Old Party to get Kasich and Rubio on the ballots of every state for the upcoming general election in order to salvage the parlous situation. Battalions of lawyers set out to force the various states to add this new ticket to the respective ballots – in line with earlier precedents for independent candidates like Ross Perot and John Anderson, years earlier, to be listed on the respective state ballots. After some serious legal battles, they were largely successful, eventually only Montana, Alaska and New Hampshire (states where Trump had handily won primaries) held out against listing the Kasich ticket in addition to the two parties.
Then, on 25 July, the Democratic Party gathered for its turn to pick a candidate for the election. In their case, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders had proved to be an exceptionally tough opponent for the vastly better-financed Hillary Clinton. Demonstrating a truly stubborn, never-say-die manner, and turning his campaign into a kind of crusade for the soul of his party, he won a surprising roster of Northeastern and Midwestern state primaries and caucuses. He did fail to capture wins in such delegate-rich territory as New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California, but his campaign gained sufficient proportional distributions of delegates in those states such that – along with a mounting total of delegates from states where he had won outright, as well as smaller but still significant delegate counts for former Virginia senator James Webb and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and even former Rhode Island governor John Chafee respectively – that Clinton was denied an outright victory in what had originally been deemed a walk in the park for her presidential nomination candidacy.
On the convention floor, political lightning struck yet again. After a dozen ballots, it was clear neither Sanders nor Clinton would surrender and that neither had sufficient strength to force a decision. Eventually, O’Malley and Chafee threw their support to Sanders and the crowded hall began to chant the name of their unlikely standard bearer: “Sanders, Sanders, Sanders, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, 2016, 2016, 2016!” At that point, the delegation from California hurriedly caucused amid the pandemonium and decided that they too had to be true to their party’s historical values. They threw their unanimous support to Sanders and the rush was then on to endorse him as their party’s candidate. By the next day, Sanders had picked his vice-presidential candidate – Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama cabinet Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, in an obvious bid to shore up support among Hispanic Americans – an area in which polling said he was still less than compelling as a nominee.
The Clinton forces were beaten and the would-have-been candidate accepted her fate with what was generally acknowledged to have been her best-ever speech from the podium, outlining what she believed to be true about America, its politics, its goals, its aspirations and its hopes. But many Democrats recoiled in horror over the result, given what they had seen as an amazing opportunity to win the presidency yet again in November against that terribly divisive Trump candidacy – as shown by the defection of Kasich from the party’s nominee.
After late night meetings in Washington, Chicago and New York, the incumbent president Obama finally placed a phone call to Vice-President Joe Biden and told him that for the good of his country, his party and any chance of electoral success for Democrats, he had to agree that he would stand for the presidency as well. After an anguished, sleepless night, Biden made his own historic announcement, and, building upon the legal spade-work already ongoing by rebel Republicans, they made their own largely successful case that the incumbent vice-president’s ticket also belonged on the ballot for the November election. This candidacy eventually figured on every state ballot save for Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska – states usually lost to Democrats anyway.
Biden, deciding that this had to be a defining moment for the Democrats, called on Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the party’s liberal icons, to join him on his ticket. To the consternation of Sanders’s supporters, she agreed to do for the sake of the party’s chances in November. Biden had always been seen as more liberal than Clinton, and the selection of Warren ultimately seemed both logical and ideologically congruent to many commentators and rank-and-file Democrats.
For people who felt things had now entered unprecedented electoral territory, commentators and historians – especially some suddenly-in-demand Abraham Lincoln scholars – began pointing out in their newspaper columns, on social media postings and via a growing number of television appearances that the 1860 election, at a time when America teetered on the brink of its Civil War, had also had four major candidates for the presidency. This was in addition to several other third-party candidacies in various elections since 1948, and of course, the famous 1912 elections that handed the presidency to Woodrow Wilson after the GOP was split between the incumbent president William H Taft and the popular former president Theodor Roosevelt.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln had been the compromise candidate for a still-new Republican Party in only its second national election fight. Meanwhile, the Democrats had splintered into two halves – in the South, John C Breckinridge was the candidate for a distinctly pro-slavery faction, while Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s old opponent from two years earlier in the Illinois senatorial election that had given the country the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, managed to campaign nationally as a supporter of maintaining the status quo on slavery. In addition, the veteran politician from Tennessee, John Bell, ran for a reconfigured Whig Party, now labelled the Constitutional-Union Party, with a platform urging the postponement of any actions on slavery-related issues until well into the future, in order to save the nation from pulling itself apart. Ultimately, Lincoln won a solid Electoral College win, although his popular vote total was well below 50%.
The broadcast schedule for the 2016 series of presidential debates, previously negotiated between the two parties, were now hastily reconfigured to include all four major candidates (but not the candidates from such minor groups as the Prohibition Party or the Vegetarian Party). Given the unprecedented nature of these debates for television, they achieved record audiences and viewership even came close to the numbers recorded for the past three Superbowl football championships, and fared much better than the reconfigured Celebrity Apprentice with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By the week before the election, even elections guru Nate Silver was shaking his head, saying it was just too close and too complex to call, given the range of possible outcomes, depending on who won voter pluralities in the various big states. Election Day opened with a sudden early snowstorm across the Northeast while the Southeast was soaked with rain, making vote predictions even more uncertain. By the time the votes had been counted, it was clear that for the first time since 1876, there would not be a declared winner once all the votes were in – save for those anomalous circumstances of 2000 when disputed ballots in Florida had kept the election results uncertain until the Supreme Court rejected further recounts there, once the state had been declared for George W Bush by the narrowest of possible margins.
After all the counting, the electoral totals stood at: Trump 130; Kasich 135; Biden 140; and Sanders 33, as a result of the various state laws that gave the state’s entire electoral vote totals to the candidate with the highest vote plurality in that state, save for Maine and Nebraska where electoral votes were distributed to the winner in each congressional district. The electoral votes for each state are a function of the number of congressional seats (ultimately based on population) held by each state, plus two more for their respective senatorial delegations. The city of Washington, DC had three electoral votes as well.
With this deadlock, and with a candidate needing 270 votes out of the 538 electoral votes, secretive envoys between the four candidates began quiet discussions about who would support whom, now that the decision would be left to the delegations of Congress members in the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation would have one vote. In this vote, with the first candidate to secure 26 state delegation votes would be declared the winner of this unique election. Given the deep anger within the Republican leadership against Trump and Cruz for hijacking the convention and for the Donald’s positions, there was even some thought that Kasich might, for the good of the country, throw his weight behind Biden (and, of course, in the Kasich camp, that the reverse version of this scenario would begin to shape up).
Ultimately, the House of Representatives assembled at the appointed time, and with Republicans holding a majority of state delegations, the real question became whether they would break for Trump or Kasich. It took several ballots before Biden finally broke the ice – in a way following in Al Gore’s footsteps back in 2000 – when he decided it would be better for the country to have a president, than to have this chaos continue for months on end as various court challenges over individual state vote totals played out in the courts – decisions that might affect the electoral vote totals and thus the selection of the president.
In an unprecedented move, however, the newly selected president-elect, Kasich, announced that if elected by the House, he would appoint Biden as his secretary of state and Warren as his ambassador to China as a way of bringing together a now-deeply divided nation. (Some with particularly long memories and a special nose for popular culture whispered that Kasich had been a secret fan of that popular Washington politics-based television series West Wing, especially its surprise final episode.) Some in Biden’s party were shattered at this unexpected turn of events. Others, wiser perhaps, and certainly savvier in the ways of the world, finally agreed it would be better to have a sober-minded realist like Kasich in the White House – even if he was a rather conservative one on many key domestic issues – rather than a wild, unpredictable man like Trump who would almost certainly stir up global conflicts in his wake, whenever he delivered a speech or met a foreign leader – even a friendly one.
And Trump, what happened to him after all this? Irrepressible as ever, he simply announced he would now lead a national drive to repeal the relevant parts of the US constitution that established the Electoral College system, in order to achieve the popular direct election of the president by 2020 (hinting he might still run again under such a new system). Then he purchased a controlling share of Time-Warner (the ultimate corporate parent of CNN) in order to give his campaign a guaranteed platform from which to make his pitch. This, of course, took place in between his newest business efforts to build a series of casinos across Asia, including one that would be two stories taller than Republican candidate uber-funder Sheldon Adelson’s own trademark casino in Macau, as well as several in the Middle East in order to entice the vast array of very rich people there to engage in some impromptu and unexpected wealth transfers.
And as for Sanders, well, he led a popular, increasingly well-supported campaign to buy up large numbers of shares of a group of blue-chip companies by a specially established, new foundation (funded by his supporters) that would turn them into non-profit organisations so as to make the social investments that had been the bedrock of his presidential effort. And the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Finally. DM
Photo: Bernie Saunders, Joe Biden, John Kasich and Donald Trump (Photos by EPA)