The quadrennial search for a white knight

The quadrennial search for a white knight
© Stefani Reynolds

It’s almost a quadrennial exercise. Unhappy with the presidential candidates, the political class starts chattering about finding a white knight — or maybe even an independent candidacy.

This season it's the Democrats.

Some politicians and donors are worried that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump Jr. to self-publish book 'Liberal Privilege' before GOP convention Tom Price: Here's how we can obtain more affordable care The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE is spent and that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution MORE (D-Mass.) is un-electable.


A sequel is: If it's Warren v Trump next fall, it's a recipe for a feasible independent or third-party candidacy.

Considering the rules — and reality — this is wishful thinking. I put the probability of a Democratic nominee coming from the current field at about 95 percent, of the next president being the Democratic or Republican nominee at 99 percent.

The Democrats eliminated winner-take-all primaries, which theoretically makes a longer struggle— and conceivably a deadlocked convention — more possible. But there is a threshold that requires 15 percent of the vote anywhere to get delegates.

Political sense — and history — suggests that only three, with a stretch maybe four, candidates will be viable after the initial Iowa and New Hampshire contests in early February.

A “respectable fifth” in Iowa is an oxymoron. Plans to score big with the heavy African-American vote in South Carolina — or to roll up a bunch of delegates in the huge and diverse California primary — requires first doing well with the predominately white Iowa and New Hampshire electorates.

Ultimately, a brokered convention — the dream of all those searching for the dream candidate — depends on a multi-field race contesting through all the primaries. That is highly unlikely.


A late-starting candidate would be at considerable disadvantage. On March 3, there are 16 contests, including the huge California and Texas primaries with almost 30 percent of the delegates selected.

Moreover, in a stupid bow to the Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE forces, the Democratic National Committee eviscerated the role of so-called “super delegates,” about 15 percent of the total. These are members of Congress, Governors, top party officials. They won't be permitted to vote at the convention until a nominee is decided.

The left wing charged these are establishment figures who thwart the preferences of grass roots voters. That's nonsense. In 2008, the establishment figure was Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden wins Louisiana primary Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida MORE, but these elected politicians started moving to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow Trump can get his mojo back Trump confirms 2018 US cyberattack on Russian troll farm Democrats see convention as chance to underscore COVID-19 message MORE when they saw he was the more appealing and electable candidate.

These are the people a president has to govern with. Their role in the nominating process instead should have been enhanced. But the effect of this change makes a brokered convention even less likely.

Even then… who would be the savior?

Hillary Clinton and John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 | Park Police did not record radio transmissions during June 1 sweep of White House protesters | Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE are making known their interest. The concern — or complaint — would be that the front-runners are too old when there's a need for a new generation of leaders. Turning to septuagenarians who lost two presidential elections, isn't the answer.

More appealing — if the nomination is out of reach of candidates like Colorado Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden campaign hires top cybersecurity officials to defend against threats Biden strikes populist tone in blistering rebuke of Trump, Wall Street Buttigieg's new book, 'Trust,' slated for October release MORE — might be Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaPrinceton must finish what it started The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump takes on CDC over schools MORE, but she has made clear she has no interest in running for any political office.

There is a sense of deja vu.

In 1976 there was a “stop Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterJimmy, Rosalynn Carter implore public to 'wear a mask to save lives' How Trump can get his mojo back Voting can seem irrational — but you should do it anyway MORE” movement, driven by those fearful that an inexperienced one-term Georgia Governor couldn't win the presidency; California Gov. Jerry Brown and Idaho Sen. Frank Church even entered late and won some primaries. In the spring of 1992, with a weakened Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMcCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Facebook ad boycott is unlikely to solve the problem — a social media standards board would Kanye West says he had coronavirus MORE headed to the nomination, party hands fearful of other shoes (worn by women) dropping revived talk of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo running. Four years ago, the anybody-but-Trump contingent was desperate for alternatives.

All fizzled.

Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE were all elected president in those elections.

Those previous white knight searches fizzled, and so will the current dream of an independent candidate both rich and charismatic enough to capture the wide center. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz took a look and backed away. If it looks like Trump v Warren, the talk will intensify about Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWake up, America — see what's coming Bloomberg urges court to throw out lawsuit by former campaign staffers Former Obama Ebola czar Ron Klain says White House's bad decisions have put US behind many other nations on COVID-19; Fears of virus reemergence intensify MORE or someone else.

Much of this speculation is fanciful.

Trump, under this scenario, would get more than 35 percent of the vote: evangelicals, racists, well-to-do tax cuts lovers, anti-regulation small business owners, and alienated struggling white men. Warren would be assured of about the same amount: African-Americans, most Latinos, feminists, highly educated whites, staunch labor unionists, gays and lesbians. There always are a few others who will vote for the Democrat or Republican because they hate the other side.

And when this "centrist" contender takes a position on abortion, guns, gay rights or Wall Street, it will solidify a few supporters of Trump or Warren.

The most popular third-party candidate in modern times, Ross Perot, got 19 percent of the vote in 1992. He didn't carry a single state.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.