Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Clock is Ticking on Contested Convention Chatter

The 2020 Democratic presidential nomination process is far enough into the invisible primary now that contested convention stories are popping up at a pretty brisk pace. FHQ is not quite to the point of saying another day, another contested convention story, but we may not be that far off either.

But rather than take the latest one from Cameron Joseph over at Vice News and poke holes in it, I will take a different approach and ask a different question: How much longer should we the politically attentive public expect to deal with the quadrennial rite of contested convention speculation?

There are a variety of ways to look at this, but FHQ will take something of an indirect approach. Both events in primary season and media reactions to those events help to drive attention toward the possibility of a contested convention. So let's turn to the Google Trends data from the last three presidential election cycles, the three for which full data is available.1 Rather than squeeze the full time series into one figure FHQ will break it into cycles, covering the trendlines for "contested convention," "brokered convention," and "open convention" from January 1 in the year prior to the presidential election year to January 1 of the year after the presidential election has occurred.

One thing is obvious from the figures below right off the bat: The term brokered convention remains the most used term for an unresolved nomination race at the convention stage.

During the 2016 cycle, brokered conventions reached its search height during the first week in March, the week on which Super Tuesday fell during that cycle, and then trailed off thereafter. There was a surge in contested convention searches two weeks later during the mini-Super Tuesday that formed right as the proportionality window in the Republican nomination process closed, allowing state parties to allocate their delegates in a winner-take-all manner if they so chose. But again, that was the peak and it dropped off after that point. Certainly questions lingered as to whether either party's nomination race would remain unresolved for a prolonged period after Super Tuesday, but the searches petered out for the most part.

There is a fairly similar pattern that developed during 2012 as well. The primary calendar was a bit more elongated in 2012 relative to 2016. Florida again jumped into January and forced three-quarters of the carve-out states to follow suit. But that left a significant lull in activity through the bulk of February. But the peak in brokered convention searches falls in a window that includes Super Tuesday (the first Tuesday in March) and extends to and through the following week. That second Tuesday in March featured a couple of competitive southern contests in Alabama and Mississippi that seemed like openings for Santorum and/or Gingrich to challenge Romney, but those opportunities were largely missed (in the delegate count).

Finally, in 2008 a familiar pattern is again observed. Sure, Super Tuesday was a month earlier during that cycle compared to either 2012 or 2016, but it still represented the point of peak brokered convention searches.

That repeated pattern -- a Super Tuesday peak -- suggests a few things. First, this seems to have more to do with the calendar -- the collection of contests on Super Tuesday -- than say the number of delegates allocated by a certain point on the calendar. I say that because there was wide variation in the number of delegates allocated on or before Super Tuesday. It ranged from a high of 83 percent of the delegates allocated by the time Super Tuesday was over in 2008 in the Democratic process to a low of a little more than 25 percent once Super Tuesday was completed in the Democratic process of 2016.

Second, just because searches for brokered or contested or open conventions drop off after Super Tuesday, does not mean they (nor the stories and/or events that drive them) cease altogether. But the bulk of this is yet to come for 2020. The occasional contested convention story may come up as the Vice News story did yesterday, but they largely fall on deaf ears. Most just are not paying attention yet. There may be a mini surge of searches during particular junctures in the invisible primary, but those tend to pale in comparison to the peak of searches that seemingly tend to fall at or around Super Tuesday each cycle.

That finally appears to suggest that if 2020 follows the same pattern, the Democratic nominee may not yet be known, but that the process will be on the way to an answer by around Super Tuesday. And if a multi-way race persists to and through that point on the calendar, then we may not reach the height of 2020 brokered convention searches until later in the calendar.

But FHQ is not willing to make that bet just yet.

1 Google Trends stretches back into 2004, but not far enough to encompass the Democratic presidential primaries.

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