Replacing Biden at Convention Is Risky and Unprecedented

Democrats gather in New York in 1924 for the mother of all open conventions.
Photo: Apic/Bridgeman via Getty Images

Pundits used to love the idea that somebody might challenge and defeat Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. However, those hopes seem dead now that primary deadlines have come and gone and the Dean Phillips candidacy went nowhere very fast. The 46th president is going to lock up enough pledged delegates to make him the nominee very soon, and for all the private kvetching about the polls and the incumbent’s age, Democrats are for the most part publicly gearing down for a good, vicious Biden-Trump rematch.

But fantasies of something different happening haven’t totally gone away, and they don’t entirely depend on the remote possibility of Donald Trump being denied the GOP nomination because he’s a convicted felon or a bankrupt loser. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein has suggested Democratic fears about Biden’s age could be addressed by a real unicorn of a development in August: a wide-open Democratic National Convention that would choose a Biden replacement based on who wowed the delegates in Chicago.

Klein doesn’t go into great detail about how this would happen (he promises to do so in a future podcast), but his premise is that Biden would voluntarily withdraw from the contest and release his delegates not too long before the convention without dictating a successor (like, say, his hand-picked vice-president, Kamala Harris, who would presumably have to fight for the nomination if she wanted it without a heavy-handed presidential assist). In that case, Klein says, Democrats could choose from a deep bench of talented politicians in an unscripted televised drama that would capture a nation that had been dreading a 2020 rematch.

The first thing to understand about this scenario is that it would be entirely unprecedented. Yes, as Klein notes, conventions rather than primaries chose major-party nominees from 1831 through 1968 (from 1972 on, nearly all states have chosen delegates via primaries or caucuses with the limited exception of the Democratic experiment with “super-delegates”). But in each and every case, the conventions were preceded by carefully planned candidacies, some as sure a bet as any multiple-primary winner; the apparent spontaneity of the choice of a nominee was often as contrived as the bought-and-paid-for “spontaneous demonstrations” for candidates that abruptly ended in 1972. In addition, long before primaries dominated nomination contests, they still on occasion had a big impact on the outcome (way back in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft slugged it out in a long series of primaries before dueling in a closely divided convention that wound up splitting the GOP).

The last major-party convention in which the presidential nominee wasn’t known in advance (putting aside a few convention “revolts” that were doomed to fail) was the 1976 Republican confab. And there the gathering was the very opposite of “open”: All but a handful of delegates were pledged to Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan, and the battle was over that undecided handful. Most delegates had zero “choice” over the nominee. There was “drama,” but no sense in which the party was free to choose from an assortment of possible candidates who proved their mettle at the convention itself. The only surprise was Reagan’s decision to announce a proposed running mate (Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker) before the presidential balloting. This was an innovation at the time, which (as it happens) failed.

Yes, the further back you go, there were plenty of major-party conventions that were “deliberative,” in the sense of the nomination not being locked up in advance. Occasionally, the outcome was something of a surprise, most recently in 1940, when a whirlwind propaganda effort by a few wire-pullers and packed galleries produced Indiana utility executive Wendell Willkie as a Republican nominee. But again, the delegates themselves weren’t generally free to deliberate, since many were controlled by state political leaders and others were chosen in primaries.

If you want a truly wide-open convention, the eternal ideal is the Democratic convention held one century ago in New York. The 1924 gathering featured 103 ballots before the exhausted remainder of delegates who hadn’t run out of money or patience chose dark horse James W. Davis as its nominee. Davis went on to win a booming 29 percent of the general-election popular vote and lost every state outside the former Confederacy.

That brings to mind another note of caution about the idea of an “open convention”: a nominee chosen not by primary voters or by a consensus of party leaders is just as likely to produce a calamitous general-election campaign as some burst of enthusiasm among united partisans. The last multi-ballot Democratic convention nominated Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He lost. The last multi-ballot Republican convention chose Thomas Dewey in 1944. He lost. The record of nominees chosen by deliberative (much less contested) conventions isn’t that great generally. Gerald Ford (winner of the aforementioned 1976 Republican convention) lost. His vanquisher, Jimmy Carter, lost in 1980 after a tough primary challenge and then a convention full of buyer’s remorse. The biggest general-election winners in living memory (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, Barack Obama in 2008) were the products of conventions that were virtual coronations.

The 2024 Democratic convention will end on August 22 (assuming it doesn’t go into overtime like the 1924 affair), leaving ten weeks before the general election on November 5. Would a Democratic Party fresh from an “open convention” be able get its act together in that span of time, particularly if the nominee is someone other than a universally known figure? What if there are Democrats who are unhappy with the nominee? When does that get sorted out?

I’m interested in learning more about “open convention” scenarios. But at first blush it seems a far riskier proposition for Democrats than just going with the incumbent president of the United States, the man who was left for dead as a presidential candidate in 2020 more times than you could count.

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