Contesting A Contested Convention Convention

Politicalbetting.com is a rather good site- if you like that kind of thing. I’ve been reading it on and off for many years since Mike Smithson’s efforts were in their infancy. To those who know me and my interests, this will come as as little a shock as my being unflustered about looming deadlines or my preference for long bus rides to joining the sweaty, heaving throng on the London Tube. I’ve won money on various political contests over the years, given some tips to friends so they could join the fun, and am currently running a fund with my good friend, Peter A. Sebastian, which pays out a nice profit if Trump, Cruz, or Kasich emerges as the nominee. But I tend to find myself none the poorer for reading politicalbetting.com and so chancing upon their podcast was as welcome as it was shocking that I had not found it before.

One podcast, featuring the always-thoughtful Marcus Roberts and the Staggers’ Stephen Bush (who, full disclosure, once published yours truly at the New Statesman), was a convivial chat about Corbyn, Labour MPs to keep an eye on when pondering Labour’s next leader, and Labour’s prospects in council elections and Sadiq Khan’s hopes to be London’s next mayor. It was ably chaired by Keiran Pedley. However, a recent one about American politics rattled my cage.

In the episode, which came up on my iTunes a week ago, the participants are entirely sanguine about Trump’s abilities to navigate the challenges still before him and win the Republican nomination. This is not a majority view. Trump is still an overwhelming favorite to be the next Republican nominee, but his odds have been lengthening because of a lengthy drumbeat from well-placed Republicans in the #NeverTrump movement, and those within the Cruz campaign looking for donors and belief.

Here’s the risk for those backing Trump (either electorally or betting on his emerging as the nominee): Trump falls short of the 1237 delegates he needs for a first ballot victory and the Republican convention is thrown into chaos. One might agree with Trump and say that this number is “arbitrary”, but many of the big poohbahs in the GOP don’t agree with him, and the rules don’t either. And they have been on maneuvers for a while to try and steal the nomination from his grasp. There has already been talk of Cruz double-agents pretending to be Trump fans in convention selections for delegates, for nobbling the Louisiana convention, and out-organizing Trump in Colorado and elsewhere. Trump is going to be far weaker in terms of delegate discipline if the convention doesn’t see him win on the first round. He’s hired some convention specialists but they’re gearing up as the Cruz campaign have been at full speed for a while.

One of the most important things to note- and something which seems to be at the root of some confusion from the punditocracy- is a little-known rule from the 2012 convention. Romney insisted that any nominee had to have won at least 5 states in the primary process to put their name forward at the convention (this was to stop Ron Paul showboating for the cameras). These rules might be revised, but, if it is maintained, this will mean that only Cruz or Trump would be eligible to be the nominee. Kasich’s team have still made noises about him hanging around until Trump and Cruz’s delegates alight on him as the “least worst” alternative to their man not getting the nod. The rules might stop him having that chance. One of the participants on the podcast simply said “the number is arbitrary… Trump can just ask Cruz for his delegates in exchange for being his running mate” but this is incredibly tone deaf. Why would Cruz be Trump’s running mate when he could be the main attraction? Trump’s delegates might be far more likely to flake than those hardened against The Donald‘s appeal (especially as more and more polls come in suggesting that Hillary would wind up saying “You’re Fired!” in a hypothetical match-up).

The GOP has been calling for Kasich to drop out for some time now without the media really examining why he should be carrying on. Kasich isn’t some lonely politico, with a pouch at the of a stick, flung over his back. He’s making a very reasonable and rational calculation: Trump might not win on the first ballot (and Kasich carrying on makes that most likely) and Cruz will have a better convention strategy in terms of double-agents, offering inducements, and holding a consistent anti-Trump line. Kasich’s aim is to create maximum leverage in his negotiation with Cruz for his delegates. Cruz can have his delegates and win in the 4th or 5th round of voting, but only if he gets on the ticket. The GOP have a well-known tendency to look to see who is the next in line: Kasich’s coronation of uber-conservative Cruz and service to the ticket, will see him in a much advanced position in four years’ time. If Kasich doesn’t keep collecting delegates, Cruz might think that he can pull off a nomination victory without Kasich’s help, armed with his delegates and a few refugees from Team Rubio and Trump deserters. Hence the Ohio Governor’s continuing on to Pennsylvania and other parts of the North-East where he is likely to accrue more delegates for the convention and increase his bargaining power.

So, Cruz has the motivation, the means, and the Machiavellian instinct to try and steal the nomination from Trump. Trump’s talk of riots, and mooting once more a third party run, is obviously meant to raise the costs for Cruz to carry out such an operation. Therefore half of the fascination for the remainder of the GOP race is whether Trump can get a majority of the delegates (Trump’s odds will go out after he loses Wisconsin but he might clear 50% of the vote in New York and will regain his footing) or whether he will fall just short enough that his threats and bluster make stealing the nomination with a Cruz-Kasich deal viable but politically impossible without scenes which make Chicago ’68 look like a Girl Scouts’ meeting. Finally, Trump could do less well in the states that remain- even if their profile looks Trump-friendly- and Cruz could have the opening he needs. But he might need the “moderate” Ohio governor to pull of the Ted Crowned Affair.

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