Monday, May 16, 2016

Emotion Meets Calculation in Both Parties

Late spring is an odd time in every presidential election year. The presumptive nominees of the two parties have reliably emerged by this point (if not before), yet the schedule of primaries and caucuses continues at a slow, drawn-out pace, sometimes contested by an active opponent or two who can still score a few popular state-level victories despite the unforgiving arithmetic of the national delegate count. The leading candidates prepare to fight each other for the support of swing voters in the general election, even as they attempt to inspire unity and enthusiasm within the popular bases of their own respective parties. With six months to go before the election itself, the political press and other attentive observers follow every strategic move with great interest while most voters remain only intermittently engaged in the day-to-day combat of the campaign.

Things are even stranger than usual in 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both claimed an insurmountable lead in delegates—Trump is now running unopposed in the Republican race—yet visible segments of both parties have not become reconciled to their nominations, as demonstrated by the events of this weekend.

Saturday's Washington Post brought news of a draft campaign that is actively attempting to recruit an anti-Trump Republican to contest the general election as an independent candidate. The ringleaders of this scheme (Mitt Romney, Erick Erickson, and Bill Kristol, along with a few veteran Republican political consultants) appear undecided about what qualities they are looking for beyond (1) antipathy to Trump and (2) some commitment to run as a conservative—as is clear from the rather incoherent collection of names on their wish list, which includes John Kasich, Condoleezza Rice, ex-Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, first-term Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, a couple of retired generals, and even Dallas Mavericks owner (and reality TV star) Mark Cuban.

It's easy to understand the frustration felt by conservative elites who currently face the prospect of choosing among Trump, Clinton, and a pro-choice/anti-interventionist Libertarian Party nominee on their November ballots. But their lack of success so far at persuading any of their targets to volunteer for this mission isn't hard to figure out, because it would be a big mistake for any sensible politician to agree. Siphoning off Republican votes from Trump would clinch a sizable Democratic victory—ignore the nonsense about how it might throw the election to the House of Representatives—and ensure that the candidate would go down in party history as the Republican version of Ralph Nader. Ex-McCain and Jeb Bush strategist Mike Murphy's idea that an anti-Trump conservative might only contest a handful of swing states is even sillier; why would a significant share of voters turn out to support a candidate who couldn't even claim a hypothetical chance of victory?

On the Democratic side, the Sanders campaign and some of its most fervent supporters have largely declined to acknowledge the true state of the delegate math, instead nurturing unrealistic theories that superdelegates will overturn Clinton's victory in pledged delegates at the national convention this summer. Such hopes sit with a certain awkwardness alongside claims that dastardly Democratic "bosses" have illegitimately manipulated the nomination process to prevent a Sanders nomination—a point of view that even fueled open conflict at this weekend's state party convention in Nevada.

Once the primary season is over, however, the political environment will change in a way that will make the Sanders campaign's position strategically unsustainable. Many of the superdelegates who are now publicly undeclared will likely endorse Clinton on or shortly after the final primary date (as occurred in 2008, with Obama in the front-runner position) One of those undeclared superdelegates is Obama himself, who can be expected to offer his public support to Clinton once the primaries are over. Sanders's own backers among the ranks of Democratic elected officials and national committee members will then exert pressure on the campaign to begin the process of promoting party unity.

Sanders may well withhold his formal endorsement until he secures concessions from the Clinton camp at the convention itself. But any attempt to continue an active fight against her past the end of the primary calendar will leave him open to substantial criticism from within the party that he is becoming a spoiler in the Democratic Party's battle against a potential President Trump.

In both parties, resistance among the losing factions in the nomination contest is still unusually elevated at the moment, preventing each side from quickly uniting around its future standard-bearer. But the strong emotions of disaffected activists are beginning to collide with the cold calculations of actual and potential candidates, who perceive substantial political risk from maintaining or exacerbating divisions within the party as it turns to face the opposition in a general election in which the political stakes will be particularly high. By October, it is likely that most of the current intraparty strife will be a distant memory, and the population of Republicans who remain unreconciled to Trump (perhaps a smaller and less visible group than those who are currently vowing to stand in opposition) will probably lack a prominent candidate of their own, leaving them with an unappealing choice between voting for Clinton and sitting out the presidential race.