Unconventional #3: The return of the dark-horse nominee, why Trump is ‘out of his mind’ (and more!)

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Paul Ryan, Wendell Willkie, John W. Davis and Adlai Stevenson. (Photos: Scott Applewhite/AP, AP, BHR/AP, AP)

Unconventional is Yahoo News’ complete guide to what could be the craziest presidential convention — or conventions — in decades. Here’s what you need to know today.

1. Paul Ryan is wrong: Dark horses aren’t (necessarily) a thing of the past

Last Tuesday House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., summoned reporters to a press conference in Washington, D.C., to address the speculation that he might swoop in and save the Republican Party from certain suicide next November by allowing a deadlocked convention in Cleveland to bypass the gentlemen who are actually running for the job and nominate him for president instead.

“Let me be clear: I do not want nor will I accept the nomination of our party,” Ryan declared. “I should not be considered. Period. End of story.”

Ryan went on to instruct delegates “to only choose a person who has actually participated in the primary.” He even advocated for a rule change to that effect.

“I think it would be wrong to go any other way,” Ryan concluded.

To hear Ryan tell it, the very notion of a white knight — that is, any noncandidate turned nominee at the eleventh hour, whether or not he answers to the name “Paul Ryan” — represents an unspeakable abomination with potentially apocalyptic consequences for a party that is already in open revolt against the so-called establishment. Many Republicans seem to agree.

But history says otherwise.

Looking back, Ryanesque candidates aren’t particularly rare. They even have a name: dark horses. In the 19th century, when bosses and delegates picked nominees without any input from rank-and-file voters — there were no primaries or caucuses yet — dark horses were a normal part of the process. The first was James K. Polk, an obscure Democratic congressman whose name surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, after frontrunner and former President Martin Van Buren failed to vanquish his chief rival on the first eight ballots of the 1844 convention; Polk, who was at home in Tennessee, wouldn’t find out until a week later that he had been nominated. A parade of dark horses followed, and many of them, like Polk, went on to become president: Franklin Pierce in 1852, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James A. Garfield in 1880. Oh, and some guy named Abraham Lincoln.

Dark horses kept rearing their heads even after primaries entered the equation in 1912. Woodrow Wilson, who emerged as the nominee at that year’s Democratic convention, wasn’t quite a dark horse, even if he trailed frontrunner Champ Clark of Missouri for the first 29 ballots and didn’t clinch the nod until ballot 46; same goes for James M. Cox of Ohio, who won on the 44th ballot eight years later. The Democratic Party’s 1924 nominee, however — a West Virginian named John W. Davis — was definitely a dark horse, having received the nomination only as a compromise on the record-setting 103rd ballot after neither of the two leading contenders was able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority during the first 102 rounds of voting. Before that Davis had “ frankly said … that he was not seeking [the nomination] and that if nominated he would accept only as a matter of public duty. ” The Democratic Party’s 1952 nominee, Adlai Stevenson, expressed similar sentiments heading into that year’s convention in Chicago. But then he gave a witty and stirring welcoming address to the delegates, and the rest is history; the party, deeply divided between its Northern and Southern factions, abandoned its leading primary candidate, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and turned to the intellectual from Illinois instead.

The GOP nominated its fair share of dark horses during this period as well. The party’s 1916 nominee, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, didn’t run in the primaries. In 1920, General Leonard Wood, Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden and California Sen. Hiram Johnson were the favorites at the start of the convention, but Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding, who’d received a mere 65.5 votes on the first ballot, wound up winning nine ballots later because he was the only candidate both progressives and conservatives could tolerate. And in 1940, Republicans chose the darkest horse of all: a Wall Street industrialist named Wendell Willkie who’d been a Democrat until 1939 and had never run for office before. Earlier that year, New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey won five primaries with 1.6 million votes. Willkie didn’t bother to enter a single contest.

At this point, fans of Paul Ryan’s decision to pull a Sherman will note that primaries play a much greater role in today’s nominating process than they did in, say, 1940, when they were basically just for show. These people would be correct. The modern primary system — a series of statewide popular votes that all but determine how many delegates each candidate controls heading into the convention — only came into effect in the early 1970s, and since then dark horses have become an endangered species. Pundits have described Jimmy Carter as a dark horse, for instance, but that’s just because he wasn’t a household name when he launched his bid for the 1976 Democratic nomination; by the time the convention opened that summer he’d won 40 percent of the popular vote and pocketed more than enough delegates to clinch the nomination. Every Democratic and Republican nominee since 1972 has competed in his party’s primaries (and finished the process in first place).

Presumably Ryan and fans would cite this fact as justification for his decision. It isn’t 1952 anymore, they might argue. To select a dark horse now, in 2016, would violate decades of precedent and subvert a system that has become all about the will of the people.

But anyone who agrees with that statement is forgetting one important detail: We haven’t had a truly contested convention — that is, a convention with more than one round of balloting — in the modern primary era, either.

In fact, we haven’t had one since 1952.

Anyone who claims to know how the process will unfold — especially if they’re claiming it won’t unfold like it has in the past — is lying. If Donald Trump doesn’t hit the magic 1,237-delegate mark on the first ballot in Cleveland, and if Ted Cruz’s sleeper delegates don’t give him a majority on the second, third or 15th ballot, it’s entirely possible — even likely, given today’s polarized political atmosphere, saturation media coverage and lack of trust in party poobahs, who might have swayed delegates in the past — that both sides will dig in and that round after round of balloting will result in deadlock. In that case, it won’t really matter how much more democratic the road to the convention has become in recent years: Cleveland itself would look a lot more like 1924 than 2004, and a dark horse could be the only way out.

Regardless of what Paul Ryan says.

Drop me a line on Twitter (@andrewromano) and let me know if you think the GOP should consider a dark-horse nominee — and who their best dark horse would be.


2. Now I Get It: How to become a delegate

If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that the magic word for 2016 is “delegates.” It’s clear that delegates hold the keys to the kingdom … or in this case, the White House. But who becomes a delegate? How are they selected? Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric demystifies this complicated and confusing process.


3. Expert Q&A: Why Trump is ‘out of his f***ing mind’ when he calls the primary process ‘corrupt’

Members of the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee, from left, Donna Brazile, Elaine Kamarck and Alice Germond vote on what to do with Florida delegates during their meeting in Washington in 2008. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)

By Jon Ward

Elaine Kamarck started in Democratic politics as an aide to President Jimmy Carter and became a top official in Bill Clinton’s White House; in 2009, she wrote a book called “Primary Politics,” which explains how the modern nominating process came to be. Kamarck spoke to Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward about Donald Trump’s complaints that the current GOP system is “rigged” and “corrupt”—and his call for a “bold infusion of popular will.” She didn’t mince words.

For the full conversation, click here

Jon Ward: A lot of people are wondering about these rules for how delegates are selected. They’ve never really mattered since the primary season was opened up in 1972. Why do they matter now?

Elaine Kamarck: The only reason they matter is because the voters haven’t given a clear-cut victory to someone. What we are accustomed to is someone wins early, they keep on winning, the other candidates drop out and by the time you get to July, there isn’t a contest anymore. Whenever the voters don’t make a clear decision, the decision-making falls to the delegates and you have essentially the system that existed prior to 1972, where party insiders get to make the decision. There’s nothing new about this. It’s just that in the modern situation we’re not used to it.

It happened all the time pre-’72.

The first nominating convention was in 1832. Until 1968, Americans nominated their presidents in almost exactly the same way. It was party leaders, elected as delegates in their states, going to the convention. For all that time, almost no one ran in primaries. There were very few. In fact, running in a primary was considered a weakness, not a mark of strength. In ’72, because of party rules reform efforts on the Democratic side, more states held primaries; those primaries suddenly were binding — or attempted to be— on the delegates.

What do you think of Trump’s complaint that the system is corrupt and unfair?

Trump’s out of his f***ing mind. Every single presidential candidate except for him knows what this system is. It’s not corrupt. It’s the system by which the parties pick their nominee. Parties are protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly. No American is forced to participate.

Parties are institutions. They have an interest in preserving their brand. Coca-Cola doesn’t let Pepsi participate in their brand. Republicans don’t let Democrats participate in their brand. This is a party decision, and parties make these decisions based on their institutional health. Meaning if you put someone at the top of the ticket that is so unpopular that you lose the House of Representatives, you’re not doing the right thing for your party.

The voters have been included to keep parties from getting really out of touch. In 1968 Democrats did not understand the depths of the antiwar sentiment in their party and cut [Vietnam war opponents] out of their convention. This time the Republican Party didn’t understand the anger of voters for Trump. But the bottom line is, this is not a public decision — it’s a party decision.

Do you want that on the record, that Trump is out of his f***ing mind?

Yes. He’s out of his f***ing mind. He’s an a**hole. No other candidate has ever run for president so unprepared.

Do you think his arguments will influence the way we choose nominees?

The systems will only change if the parties themselves decide to change them. My guess is the system will move in the other direction from where Trump wants it to, with parties taking greater control of the nominations to keep them from being captured by people who sully the brand.

Is Trump right? Should the parties do away with the delegate system and select their nominees by popular vote instead? Let us know on Facebook. 


4. The RNC Rules Committee goes to Hollywood

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.(Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: Jason Reed/Reuters, AP (2))

For convention nerds like you and me — OK, maybe just me — this week will be all about the RNC Spring Meeting in Hollywood. Sounds sexy, right? In normal election year, it wouldn’t be. First of all, the Hollywood we’re talking about is in Florida, not California. Plus, the big story is all about the GOP’s Rules Committee. Zzzzz.

Here’s the thing, though: 2016 isn’t a normal election year. With Donald Trump quacking Sunday about the Republican Party’s “corrupt and crooked” delegate-selection system — and bragging about how he could buy delegates by “put[ting] them in the best planes and bring[ing] them to the best resorts anywhere in the world” — the controversy over process is about to take center stage as RNC brass gathers in the Sunshine State to consider what kind of recommendations (if any) it wants to make about the rules governing the party’s convention in Cleveland this summer.

On one side of the clash are an Republican National Committee member from Oregon named Solomon Yue and Rules Committee Chairman Bruce Ash, both of whom are arguing that in Florida this week the RNC should consider a proposal to switch the rule book governing the convention from the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives, which have been used at Republican National Conventions for decades, to Robert’s Rules of Order, which are common in civic and organizational meetings.

On the other side are RNC Chair Reince Priebus and his allies, who are trying to scuttle the proposal. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea for us next week, I mean, before the convention, to make serious rules changes or recommendations of changes,” Priebus said Sunday on CNN.

This all sounds arcane, and again, in a normal election year it would be. But switching the rule book could mean the difference between a convention where delegates can nominate a dark-horse candidate (which is possible under the current House rules) and a convention where only current candidates — Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich — could be considered (which is the likely result if Robert’s rules are adopted).

So, yeah — a pretty big deal. Stay tuned for more throughout the week.


5. The best of the rest


History lesson

Hubert H. Humphrey is flanked by state standards as he acknowledges the cheers of Democratic National Convention delegates who chose him to be their presidential candidate in Chicago, Aug. 30, 1968. (Photo: AP)

The last major-party presidential nominee not to compete in the primaries? Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who won the Democratic nomination in 1968. Humphrey announced his candidacy on April 27, 1968, shortly after incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the race. It was too late for Humphrey to enter any primary contests. Still, Humphrey wasn’t a dark-horse candidate. Favorite-son surrogates competed in various primaries in his stead; meanwhile, Humphrey openly gathered support from Democratic officeholders in nonprimary states. By the time the convention in Chicago began, Humphrey’s main rival, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated and Humphrey controlled more than enough delegates to clinch the nomination — which he did on the first ballot (despite a late challenge from antiwar Sen. George McGovern, a true dark horse.)



For the latest data, make sure to check the Yahoo News delegate scorecard and primary calendar.