The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Nevada but a warm-up to South Carolina

Fri 21 Feb 2020

There is the wish to carry a particular aspirant. There is the wish to defeat a particular aspirant, a wish sometimes stronger than any predilection... There is the wish to find the man who, be he good or bad, friend or foe, will give the party its best chance of victory. These motives cross one another, get mixed, vary in relative strength.--
JAMES BRYCE on how National Convention delegates of his time weighed presidential contenders: from his The American Commonwealth [1888]

James (later, Viscount) Bryce was, of course, here writing during an age before the first Presidential Primary Elections (although, back then, there were already "primaries", in the form of what we now know as precinct caucuses or County mass meetings): a time when it was only the Convention itself (regardless as to how its delegates might have been credentialed) that nominated a Party's candidate for President of the United States, and doing so (at least as regarded an 'open' race for a Party's presidential nomination: one in which an incumbent President was seeking re-nomination without serious challenge) without all that much objective data (as we now have as we peruse the voting in Party Primaries and caucuses week by week) allowing Convention participants to know, beforehand, just who might take the prize in the end...

yet, Lord Bryce's above explanation of the motives behind the currents, and cross-currents, swirling around the supporters of at least the most viable presidential contenders still well explains these same motives as applied to those who participate in a caucus, or vote in a Presidential Primary, at least this early on during the modern presidential Primary/Caucus process. Certainly, we can already well see just such motives driving much of the reasoning behind those votes already "cast in anger" in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Indeed, it might be well- if not even best- to think of this year's Primary/Caucus "season" (as it proceeds) along the following lines:

Back in Lord Bryce's day- in fact, even as late as the early 1950s (not all that long before I myself was born!)- a typical National Party Convention involving an 'open' race for the presidential nomination (as well as at least a few where an incumbent President was seeking re-nomination) was a multi-ballot affair (even more so on the Democratic side, where [until 1936] a 2/3 vote of the Convention was necessary for nomination; but also on the Republican side [always requiring but a simple majority of the delegates] as well). On the earliest ballots of the Roll Call of the States, the leading presidential contenders (what we today would call "the front-runners", or at least "front-runner and closest challenger[s]") would test their respective strength amongst the delegates, find they were each short of the "magic number" necessary to be nominated, and then try to get those who had voted for others (such as "favorite son" candidates holding on to their own State's delegation before "throwing it" to some candidate or other)- where they might not even pry at least some delegate support away from their closest rivals- to vote for themselves come the next ballot, hoping that this time the presidential nomination might well be theirs.

Meanwhile, new presidential candidates- ones whose names might not have made much impact, or even have been heard, during the earliest Convention ballots- might start to gain delegate support as the balloting went on (perhaps even being seen as something of a "compromise" relative to hitherto leading presidential contenders seemingly unable to cobble together the necessary delegate support to win the nomination on an ensuing ballot). Indeed, it was not at all impossible for just such an "emergent candidate" to ultimately be nominated for President (this is pretty much what actually took place a century ago at the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago that nominated future President Warren Harding: an event I myself once wrote about as part of a piece for this website).

So, just how might how an "old-school" National Party Convention of the late 19th Century into early (to mid-) 20th Century went about its business apply to the pre-Convention Primary/Caucus process of now, the early 21st Century?

As I wrote towards the end of that same piece: [W]hat was really going on at the floor of such Conventions was, in essence, not all that much different from what we ourselves witness today during the course of the Presidential Primary/Caucus pre-Convention "season": nowadays, the jostling for position among the principal contenders for a Major Party Presidential Nomination takes place over the course of several months in full view (and, more usually, with the direct participation) of ordinary voters-- "back in the day", on the other hand, this very same jostling lasted but a couple to a few (occasionally, several) days on the floor of a National Convention itself!

I then went on to suggest that the reader [j]ust think of each separate ballot of an "old-time" National Convention as having been the functional equivalent of a week's worth of today's Presidential Primaries (with the key difference that- unlike the delegates on the Convention floor- those who today vote for their choice for presidential nominee on one "ballot" [that is, in a Presidential Primary or first-tier Caucus in their own home State] don't get to participate in any future such "ballot"s)... seen in this light: every 'open' Major Party presidential nomination race is, in a sense, "brokered"-- it's just that, nowadays, the "brokers" are the voters themselves...

The only thing I would add to the above is that, unlike each ballot at an old-time National Convention, these Primary/Caucus "ballots" are best viewed as cumulative (that is: one should look at the total number of delegates each presidential contender holds, rather than merely the number of delegates each contender might have received during a given Primary/Caucus week); and this is an approach to understanding the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination race so far, especially as regards the candidacy of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (who won't even be joining the Primary/Caucus fray until 'Super Tuesday' come March 3rd), that I strongly suggest the observer of this process now take.

For we now have firm National Convention delegate pledges having come out of both Iowa and New Hampshire: these numbers, so far, are 23 for Mayor Pete Buttigieg; 21 for Senator Bernie Sanders; 8 for Senator Elizabeth Warren; 7 for Senator Amy Klobuchar; and 6 for former Vice-President Joe Biden. In essence, Iowa and New Hampshire combined was the equivalent of an old-fashioned National Convention's "First Ballot", from which we can derive a certain "feel" as to just where the Democratic presidential nomination contest stands now going into a "Second Ballot" (which will consist of Nevada and South Carolina combined).

From this, we can discern that Mayor Buttigieg and Senator Sanders are the leading candidates for the nomination (the co-front runners), if only at moment (in this, they are analogous to Governor Lowden and General Wood on the first ballot at the GOP Convention a century ago this year): neither of them, however, have a majority of the delegates pledged so far (65) and, in fact, the remaining 21 neither of them now holds combined is statistically the same as the delegate pledges for each...

for all practical purposes, the Democratic delegate numbers now going into the Nevada caucuses are just about evenly split between Buttigieg, Sanders, and then anyone with delegates other than Buttigieg or Sanders. I'll come back to these two front-runners shortly, but first we have to take a look at the prospects for the three other presidential contenders with delegate pledges so far:

First, we have to look at the present status of former Vice-President Joe Biden, who is 5th on the chart of those who have so far gained Democratic delegate pledges; as far as his candidacy is concerned, New Hampshire simply confirmed what we saw coming out of Iowa: the one-time presumptive front-runner throughout most of the pre-Primary/Caucus months now struggling in these early Delegate Selection events. Biden simply has to make a significant comeback somewhere before 'Super Tuesday' and that "somewhere" seems to now be South Carolina at the end of this month: it is largely because of this that Nevada's caucuses a week earlier take something of back seat to the Palmetto State this time round.

As for the two remaining currently still most viable challengers to current leaders Sanders and Buttigieg, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, they- more or less- traded places as a result of the New Hampshire Primary: I saw Senator Klobuchar as the biggest loser in Iowa, given her 'I can win back the Midwest' claim going into those caucuses; but she certainly well rebounded (with a strong 3rd place finish behind Sanders and Buttigieg) in the Granite State, whereas it was Senator Warren from a neighboring State that faltered in New Hampshire much as Klobuchar had done in Iowa. If it weren't for Biden's 5th place finish in the Granite State, Warren would have been the biggest loser there (and, thereby, the biggest story, as well as the biggest disappointment); indeed, much is being made of Senator Warren's rather fiery performance (particularly against Mike Bloomberg) in Wednesday evening's televised debate out of Las Vegas as illustration of her determination to not let a 'New Hampshire' happen to her campaign again.

Nonetheless, all three- Biden, Klobuchar, and Warren- are each just around the same place on the 'Delegates Pledged so far' chart as the other two; thus, they are all pretty much left to merely jockey for position in Nevada (as well as in South Carolina: although, as already noted, the stakes in the Palmetto State are much higher for Biden- if only because of higher expectations there that his own campaign has raised- than they currently are for the two leading female contenders [South Carolina will become the more important to whichever of the two women falters in Nevada]). Nevada will thereby serve, more than much else, as a place in which Klobuchar and Warren will attempt to separate from each other in the delegate count, as much as- if not more than- separating themselves from all the others.

Therefore, the biggest story to come out of Nevada will most likely be 'How did Mayor Pete do?'...

for Pete Buttigieg, as successful as his campaign has been so far, now enters more difficult political and electoral terrain. While he doesn't have to come in first or second in Nevada (or, for that matter, South Carolina), mind you- as has been the case all along, his principal goal (as I said in an earlier Commentary) is to be in reasonably good position going into 'Super Tuesday'- Buttigieg cannot do so badly in either February Saturday state either! All in all then, of all the top Democratic presidential contenders, Nevada will mean most (for good or ill) to 'Mayor Pete' (precisely because Joe Biden has already put "all his eggs in one basket", that of South Carolina).

In the main, though, it's still the Delegates, stupid! Thus, Nevada and South Carolina will make up (as I've said) what will be the equivalent of a "Second Ballot" in this process: between the two States 90 delegates are going to be pledged (25 more than the total coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire) and we are certainly going to see (just prior to 'Super Tuesday') how much, or how little, the various Democratic presidential contenders might move up or down the Delegates Pledged table with concomitant impact (positive, or negative) on their respective prospects as 'Super Tuesday' so obviously thereafter looms large.

'Super Tuesday' thereby becomes the "Third Ballot", and thus we can treat Mike Bloomberg (despite his rather poor performance in his first Debate appearance this past Wednesday evening) as, if only for a time (depending on how well, or not, he does beginning with all those Delegate Selection Events on March 3rd), the equivalent of one of those presidential contenders who first emerge after the earliest ballots at an old-time Convention as, if only possibly (and not yet probably) a "compromise" candidate available to break the deadlock amongst other leading contenders. Since Bloomberg is not even a real contender as regards the ballot in either Nevada or South Carolina, he still has at least some time to fix things before he has to begin to actually cull votes in less than two weeks.

Certainly , Bloomberg could serve as strong contrast to current co-front runner Bernie Sanders, as Bloomberg seems to be the very antithesis of just about everything Sanders himself stands for; and such will become even more of a contrast should, as is expected, Sanders pull away from Pete Buttigieg as a result of Nevada (if not also South Carolina) and clearly establish himself as (alone) the leading candidate at moment for the nomination: in such a case, come 'Super Tuesday', Bloomberg (that is: should Wednesday night's Debate prove to be but a 'blip' within the 2020 Primary/Caucus calendar) would surely be one of the major players in the field trying to reel Sanders back in.

I don't want to be seen as giving all too "short shrift" to the other Democratic presidential candidates still in the field who did not make the Debate stage in Las Vegas, despite neither of them having yet won any delegate pledges: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is rather defiantly staying in the race, as of this typing, and deserves at least a passing mention here (as an elective office-holder, she yet retains no little 'cred' out on the hustings). As for Tom Steyer, he appears to be most trying to break Joe Biden's so-called "firewall" (principally the African-American vote) in South Carolina which, if at all successful, will have much to say about the efficacy (if not even the future!) of the former Vice-President's own candidacy...

but consideration of the prospects for Democratic presidential contenders in the Palmetto State must await my next Commentary.

Modified .