WASHINGTON, August 1, 2016. As we wind down from the nominating conventions of both parties, America faces the most unusual election scenario in decades. Hillary Clinton, fresh from a bruising fight to win the Democratic nomination, faces Mitt Romney, chosen by the Republicans at a brokered convention, and independent Michael Bloomberg.
And it all began on a frigid night in New Hampshire almost six months ago.
Pundits had predicted that New Hampshire’s primary would set the stage for the rest of the primary season, and it did. Bernie Sanders’ ideological campaign pasted Hillary Clinton’s pragmaticsm, revealing just how tough it would be for her to sew up the nomination. Donald Trump established himself as the frontrunner, with John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio fighting over the portion of the electorate that couldn’t stomach Trump. While New Hampshire killed the candidacies of Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, it did little to settle what would happen in the rest of the contests throughout the winter and spring.
Here’s what happened in the rest of the primaries. Ted Cruz upset Donald Trump to take South Carolina. The ten contests on March 1 revealed just how fractured the field had become, with Trump taking four wins but Cruz winning Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, and John Kasich taking Massachusetts and Minnesota. All five candidates continued to roll up delegates, with Trump in the lead but without a majority. But when the well-funded Bush took Florida on March 15 and Kasich swept Pennsylvania in April and California in June, it was clear no candidate would have a majority at the convention.
This made for the most exciting convention in decades (which is not saying much, since conventions have been pretty boring for the last 40 years). “Superdelegates” — party officials — controlled enough delegates to block Trump, but not enough to give any candidate a majority. The failure to elect a nominee on the first ballot was a foregone conclusion, but what happened next was not. Trump refused to yield and gave a fiery speech in an attempt to win over both the electorate and the delegates, but many were appalled when he claimed that Jews had taken control of the American political process and it was time to take it back. The result: only a few uncommitted delegates backed him on subsequent ballots, but many more, including some of his own, defected in the face of his profane and xenophobic rhetoric. (Several of these told CNN that they had faced vague but troubling threats of blackmail and violence from Trump campaign officials.)
The convention remained deadlocked after 12 ballots. Cruz had taken a lead at the third ballot, but even after Jeb Bush directed his delegates to “vote their conscience,” Trump, Rubio, and Kasich ended virtually tied behind Cruz, each with between 18% and 21% of the votes. Because no candidate had received a majority of the delegates in at least eight states, by party rules, any nominee was possible.
In the end, Republican party leaders recognized that none of the 2016 candidates could ever receive a majority. Mitt Romney responded to leaders’ desperate pleas to save the party, and found all the remaining candidates willing to endorse him. (Ted Cruz added his support after a prayer meeting with Romney — and after agreeing to join the ticket as Romney’s vice-president.) In the final ballot, more than 85% of the delegates backed Romney-Cruz.
On the democratic side, the primaries were raucous, even if the results were never in doubt. Sanders continued to criticize Hillary Clinton as an “agent of the status quo,” and won in states including California, Washington, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, refusing to stop campaigning even when the outcome of the contest was obvious. Clinton won a majority of the primaries and an overwhelming proportion of the Democratic superdelegates, despite being under investigation by the FBI for her email practices. The party unified behind her, but many of the young voters that Bernie Sanders had energized pledged not to vote for Clinton.
Adding further fuel to this chaos, Michael Bloomberg had announced his independent candidacy in the spring. He is not currently polling in the majority in any state, but given the dissatisfaction with candidates and the nominating process from both sides, his candidacy adds a further degree of unpredictability to the race.
As we embark on the 2016 general election, nothing is clear. America has never had a major party nominee who was female, or under federal investigation while running. We’ve haven’t had a major party nominee from a brokered convention since Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, and none have won in recent times. And we haven’t had a credible third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992.
Who could possibly have foreseen these events after the indecisive New Hampshire primary?