A favourite son strategy for the republicans in 2012?

Once, party primaries did not matter nearly as much as they do today. In 1968, then-Vice-President Hubert Humphrey won the democratic nomination without running in a single primary (granted, in unusual and tragic circumstances, after the death of Bobby Kennedy). Through the 1970s, wheeling and dealing between party insiders at the summer conventions mattered as much as presidential primaries. It was only towards the second half of that decade that party bosses and behind-the-scenes alliances and deals made way for retail campaigning and gruelling primary schedules.

One way in which regional leaders used to control their party’s nomination process was through ‘favo(u)rite sons’. Rather than traditional primary contests between nationwide candidates, a local state politician (a governor, member of Congress, or someone similar) would run essentially unopposed in the primary and win most or all of the state’s delegates to the national convention. He could then use his delegates as leverage at the convention, promising them to one candidate or another depending on what was promised for his state and himself. Sometimes, favourite sons were proxies for candidates that were not sure of winning on their own in a state; other times, they were attempts by a state party to increase influence in the nominating process. They were always, however, merely sideshows with no serious chances of winning a presidential nomination.

As a political junkie and lover of drama, I’d love to see an undecided, brokered convention of the kind we saw as late as 1980 (when Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter duked it out on the convention floor for the democratic party’s nomination). I thought, however, that those days were behind us. That’s why David Broder’s article in the Washington Post made me smile (even if I can’t see his hypothetical situation actually coming to pass):

The multiplicity of attractive and credible candidates makes it difficult for the governors to unite behind a single contender early, as they did behind George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, going into the 2000 campaign.

But there is another option – a favorite-son strategy – that will preserve and indeed enhance their leverage. Favorite sons are candidates who run only in their home states, where their popularity makes them formidable. The strategy has not been used for years in presidential races, but it is particularly inviting now. There is reason to believe that Barbour, a long-shot possibility for the nomination, will exploit the respect he has gained among his peers as chairman of the governors’ association to put forward the idea…

That is Terry Branstad, once again the governor of Iowa, decades after he finished his first long run in the job. An exceptionally skilled politician, Branstad is generally counted in the Pawlenty camp. His support is the main reason Pawlenty is given a chance in the leadoff caucuses – even against Huckabee, the surprise 2008 winner in Iowa; Romney, who has invested heavily in organizing the state; and perhaps others, including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House.

Branstad’s decision to endorse the favorite-son movement and make himself available as the Iowa favorite would be seen inevitably as a blow to Pawlenty. But it could serve Pawlenty well in states holding later elections, such as New Hampshire, where he could back the favorite son rather than campaign there himself with little prospect of winning.

Were Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who entertains hopes of becoming the nominee as a Tea Party favorite, to declare himself the favorite son in the often crucial South Carolina primary, he might well foreclose others from running there, and they would all avoid what could be a damaging loss.

Obviously, this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. I was hoping for hung conventions and floor fights in both the democratic and republican presidential primary process back in 2008, with dark horses and consensus candidates like Al Gore and Newt Gingrich emerging to unite their parties. What happened instead was a rather traditional republican contest, with John McCain wrapping up the race fairly early. That’s probably what we’ll see again in 2012, despite talk of the contest being ‘wide-open’ (they were saying the same thing back in ’08). But it’s still fun to imagine going back to those days when no-one knew who the party’s nominee would be going into the convention, and everything was decided in a cavernous hall full of party bosses and activists. It might not have been as democratic, but it was amazing theatre.

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