Both major parties have now concluded their national conventions. Traditionally, this is when most Americans actually begin paying attention to politics. This marks the point when what may have been a cursory delving into the upcoming election gels into a closer examination of the candidates, their positions and their histories among the general population. Everything up to this point has been debated, argued and bandied about by only the most politically active people in the country.
As a data point, consider this. In the primary elections, approximately 57.6 million people voted. That was less than 29% of eligible voters. If turnout rates simply match those of 2012, when 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot, that would mean another 57.6 million people voting. If turnout is closer to the 63% from 2008, it would mean an additional 67.5 million voters. And if turnout is the same as the last time primary participation reached as high as this year, in 1960? In 1960, 31% of eligible voters cast a primary ballot* and 67% one in the general election. An equivalent turnout this year would mean an additional 75.4 million votes cast in November.
What all of those numbers mean is this: at best, only half of the people who are going to vote this November have actually paid enough attention to this point to have participated in the electoral process. Each candidate has been able to play their base, solidify their standing and not worry too much about attracting the votes of the rest of the country. But with the close of the conventions, that changes.
What we do have is a clearer idea of what each party intends as it’s core message for the fall campaign. For the Republicans, the message is the country is hopelessly fouled up, and only Donald Trump can save us from ourselves. The Democrats message is that things aren’t really that bad and we need the experienced hand of Hillary Clinton at the nation’s tiller.
But this year also features an electoral monkey wrench unheard of in prior contests. Both nominees are almost universally disliked, distrusted and flat-out repulsive to most of the electorate. How that plays out, in terms of messaging and voter turnout this fall, remains to be seen. It also presents third party candidates an opening unseen since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose over a century ago. Indeed, it is completely possible that a third party candidate could garner Electoral College votes for the first time since 1912.
The only thing certain about this year’s election is that these factors will create a race unique to our time. Prior models will almost certainly prove worthless to pundits and political scientists alike. The only relatively sure thing about this year is, it will be fascinating to watch and take part in the process.
*Note: The primary system was much different in 1960, as there were only 14 Democratic and 13 Republican primary contests held.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.
Super Tuesday came and went, only it wasn’t quite so super. If anything, the results only served to muddle the outcome further in what was an already muddled Republican primary. If you listen to the MSM, Mitt Romney solidified his role as front-runner after expanding his lead in delegates.
Ah, if only it were so simple. But nothing about this primary season has been simple. The principle reason for quagmire is that the Republicans decided this year to change things up and award delegates proportionally, but left it to the individual states to decide how the apportionment would work. State party bosses, being state party bosses, largely decided that the popular votes wouldn’t matter and state political conventions would ultimately decide how many delegates each candidate would receive. Craziest of all these is Missouri, which held a non-binding primary last month and will hold non-binding caucuses next week. It’s a system only Boss Hogg would appreciate.
The net result of all this inside horse-trading (aside from having only a relative few delegates actually apportioned) is the current morass. If, as in the ancient past (read: 2008) delegates were awarded on a winner take all basis, Romney would have commitments from 513 delegates, Rick Santorum 197 and Newt Gingrich 101. Instead, we have estimated delegate counts. Depending on the source, Romney has between 379 (CBS News’ count) and 430 (Fox News) delegates. My own personal count gives Romney 386 delegates. Regardless of which count you take, there are only two I’ve seen that give the front-runner more than 50% of the delegates contested thus far.
And that brings us to the current problem for the GOP. It is becoming increasingly possible that they will arrive at their convention without a candidate who has amassed 50% of the delegates needed to secure the nomination. Not necessarily probable, but possible. After all, there are three winner-take-all states (New York, California and New Jersey) that profile favorably for Romney and they combine for 317 delegates. If combined with his current total, that would mean he would need to win about 40% of the remaining delegates in the other states not yet voted, in order to reach the 1,144 required. It should be a doable task for establishment’s preferred choice.
Only, therein lies the problem for Romney and the establishment. They want the primary season over so they can focus on the general election. New Jersey doesn’t vote until June 5th – and if Romney hasn’t secured the nomination by then, it will mean enough of the party isn’t supporting the eventual nominee to signal significant weakness to the nation. A comparison can be drawn to 1948, the year Harry Truman became the original “comeback kid” (sorry, Bill Clinton). By all normal election standards, Truman should have been walloped that year: unemployment was rising, the economy faltering, the Soviets detonated their first atomic weapon and Winston Churchill’s infamous “Iron Curtain” was now a reality Americans faced with fear and trepidation. But the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, was about as inspiring as dry toast and succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Not unlike Romney, Dewey was perceived by many fellow Republicans as aloof and calculating – a politician’s politician. Also not unlike Romney, Dewey was disliked by the conservative wing of his party (who preferred Ohio Senator Robert Taft). The intra-party fight lasted into the convention, where it took three ballots to nominate Dewey.
Some 64 years later, the Republican Party seems to be repeating history. Certainly, the political calendar isn’t favorable to Romney. What he needs is a convincing win outside of New England to demonstrate he can bring the party together and he seems to be pouring money into Kansas, in the hope he can get it there. But after Kansas comes Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri, three states that do not favor Romney. Since it’s also highly likely that Santorum and Gingrich will split the lion’s share of delegates from these four states, one or both will probably close the gap with the Romney. The GOP nightmare scenario gets that much closer at that point. If the voting holds as it has thus far, with southern and evangelical voters opting for anyone but Romney, the current front-runner can’t cross the 1,144 threshold before New Jersey’s June 5th primary.
But there are two other pitfalls Romney will need to avoid if he wants to secure the nomination, even at that late date. First, he’ll need to ensure that those party conventions are stoked to vote for him (far from a sure thing at this point). Second, he needs to wrap up as many of the uncommitted delegates as possible. There are currently 93 of them; current projections indicate there may be as many 255 by the convention. That will be a powerful voting bloc, one as capable of tying up the 2012 Republican Convention as those of Earl Warren (yes, the man who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and Harold Stassen in 1948.
So, Romney still seems best positioned to become the Republican nominee. But party fratricide seems even more certain to deliver him as weak and badly wounded nominee. In 1948, the Republicans thought they could take on an unpopular incumbent presiding over a moribund economy and uncertainty on the world stage with an unpopular candidate and win. Will 2012 prove to be a repeat of that disastrous strategy?