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Presidential candidates used to be chosen at conventions. The process for picking them was pretty murky. From Wikipedia:
Conventions were often heated affairs, playing a vital role in deciding who would be the nominee. The process remained far from democratic or transparent, however. The party convention was a scene of intrigue among political bosses, who appointed and otherwise controlled nearly all of the delegates. Winning a nomination involved intensive negotiations and multiple votes; the 1924 Democratic National Convention required a record 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. The term dark horse candidate was coined at the 1844 Democratic National Convention, at which little-known Tennessee politician James K. Polk emerged as the candidate after the failure of the leading candidates - former President Martin Van Buren and Senator Lewis Cass - to secure the necessary two thirds majority.Primaries didn't replace conventions until recently.
A few, mostly Western states adopted primary elections in the late 19th century and during the Progressive Era, but the catalyst for their widespread adoption came during the election of 1968. The Vietnam War energized a large number of supporters of anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, but they had no say in the matter. Vice President Hubert Humphrey—associated with the unpopular administration of Lyndon B. Johnson—did not compete in a single primary, yet controlled enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination. This proved one of several factors behind rioting which broke out at the convention in Chicago.
Media images of the event—angry mobs facing down police—damaged the image of the Democratic Party, which appointed a commission headed by George McGovern to select a new, less controversial method of choosing nominees. The McGovern–Fraser Commission settled on the primary election, adopted by the Democratic National Committee in 1968. The Republicans adopted the primary as their preferred method in 1972. Henceforth, candidates would be given convention delegates based on their performance in primaries, and these delegates were bound to vote for their candidate.
As a result, the major party presidential nominating convention has lost almost all of its old drama. The last attempt to release delegates from their candidates came in 1980, when Senator Ted Kennedy sought the votes of delegates held by incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. The last major party convention whose outcome was in doubt was the 1976 Republican National Convention, when former California Governor Ronald Reagan nearly won the nomination away from the incumbent, Gerald Ford.So, it's only 30 some years since the last time the nomination was decided at a convention. Recent conventions have been more like coronations for the party nominees and a public relations opportunity for the parties to show their candidates in the best possible light to the world. 1976 convention clips begin this C-Span program which includes discussion with supporters of both Ford and Reagan.
2012 Republican Primary Race
But today the majority of the Republican Party appears decidedly unenthusiastic about any one of its candidates. There are passionate supporters for some, but not enough for any one candidate. The more establishment members of the party seem to be reluctantly supporting Mitt Romney, but there's little enthusiasm. I get the sense that he's the pick only because they see the other candidates as worse but they'd love a sexier candidate.
A few folks have begun to talk about new candidates still coming into the race, which seems to be technically more feasible than in 2008. The Republican Party changed the rules of the primary last year to make the votes from the early primaries proportionate to how many votes each candidate received. Only after March 31 can a state have a winner-take-all primary.
From Wikipedia's page on the Republican Presidential Primaries 2012:
Under this plan, elections for delegates to the national convention were to be divided into three periods:The total number of delegates to the Republican National Convention is about 2282. I can't find total agreement out there - Sabato says 2282, but Green Papers says 2286. And the Christian Science Monitor says 2422. The calculation is complicated because states get more delegates if their Senators or Governors, or more than 50% of their Congressional delegation, are Republicans. If the state legislature is Republican, that also changes the count. [The Green Papers site gives all the details of how this works, plus a link to a pdf of the Republican rules.]
By the fall of 2011, several states scheduled contests contravening this plan, pushing the primary calendar into January. These contests are in violation of RNC rules, with New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan set to be penalized with a loss of half of their delegates. As they are holding non-binding caucuses, Iowa, Colorado, Maine and Minnesota will not be automatically penalized, as their contests to bind national delegates are made later.
- February 1 – March 5, 2012: Contests of traditional early states Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina
- March 6 – March 31, 2012: Contests that proportionally allocate delegates
- April 1, 2012 and onward: All other contests including winner-take-all elections
As mentioned above, delegates from states with primaries before April must vote proportionally (no winner-take-all) at the convention. And states can be penalized with the loss of 50% of their votes for having primaries before March, I think. This gets confusing. In any case March 6 is the first Tuesday in March 2012, which will be Super Tuesday, with 10 states holding primaries or caucuses. The point is that they've attempted to use these penalties to keep states from moving to earlier dates on the calendar. Salon gives Missouri as an example of how this changes things from 2008:
The mathematical implications are stark. Take Missouri, for example, which votes on March 17, 2012, meaning its delegate will be allocated proportionally. Back in 2008, Missouri was winner-take-all. On the GOP side, John McCain edged Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in a tight three-way contest, 33 percent to 32 percent to 29 percent. Despite the narrow win, McCain took all 58 of Missouri’s delegates.In any case, a winning candidate has to have a majority of committed delegates going into the convention. From National Review via CBS:
Fast forward to 2012. If Mitt Romney performs as well in Missouri as McCain did in 2008, a big if, he would gain fewer than 20 delegates from the state. More to the point, the candidates collectively known as “Not Mitt Romney” would gain 38, making Not Mitt Romney the big winner.
Even if a dark horse couldn't win enough delegates to win the nomination, he could win enough to prevent his competitors from winning. "I think that a contested convention is a distinct possibility," admits Bopp [Committeeman for Indiana.] "I think the RNC is carefully thinking about that prospect and what needs to be done by the RNC to make sure that the convention is successful."Late entrants into the race are also faced with issues about qualifying for the primary. Virginia, apparently has particularly difficult qualifying hurdles. But a candidate who comes into the race late and does well in a few of the late primaries, and who looks more electable than the other candidates, might be able to start pulling votes from other candidates if no one wins the first ballot.
I'm still not clear to what extent delegates are bound to honor the results of the primary voters. Fair Vote argues:
As set out in the Rules of the Republican Party, delegates have the ability to vote according to the delegates’ preference, even if that is contrary to the outcome of each state’s primary. According to one source, the legal counsel for the Republican National Convention in 2008 stated: “[The] RNC does not recognize a state’s binding of national delegates, but considers each delegate a free agent who can vote for whoever they choose.” Thus, if a delegate were to challenge his or her ability to vote as a free agent, he or she would have grounds under Rule 38.Looking in the Rules of the Republican Party I find this:
But the National Review via CBS suggests differently:RULE NO. 38No delegate or alternate delegate shall be bound by any attempt of any state or Congressional district to impose the unit rule.
The RNC no longer allows unpledged delegates, [new Gingrich consultant Craig] Shirley says, but delegates aren't required to vote for their designated candidate beyond the first ballot. If no candidate wins the nomination on the first ballot, the convention would no longer be constrained by the primary results; it could nominate whomever it wanted.The Democrats had a rough and tumble primary last year, but in the end, Obama gained lots of debate experience for the race against McCain. The one candidate in 2008 who hadn't been tested by the primaries was the Republican vice presidential nominee. This might be a lesson for Republicans to heed in 1012 if there are viable convention candidates who were not tested in the primaries. But could they resist a Jeb Bush candidacy?