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 BidenFighting a virus with the wrong tools Trump bucks business on Defense Production Act Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — US coronavirus cases hit 100,000 | Trump signs T stimulus package | Trump employs defense powers to force GM to make ventilators | New concerns over virus testing MORE is spent and that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging Democratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men 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 SandersHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Overnight Energy: Court upholds Trump repeal of Obama fracking rule | Oil price drop threatens fracking boom | EPA eases rules on gasoline sales amid coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders pushes on in 2020 race 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 ClintonHillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines Clintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus MORE, but these elected politicians started moving to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCivil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Obama thanks Fauci, Stephen Curry during Instagram Live session 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 KerryLongtime Biden adviser posthumously tests positive for coronavirus The Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Conservative lawmakers tell Trump to 'back off' attacks on GOP colleague 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 launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website We need a massive economic response to counter the threat of the coronavirus Senator calls for cybersecurity review at health agencies after hacking incident MORE or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE — might be Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaLobbying world Michelle Obama hosts from-home voter registration party with DJ D-Nice Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents 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 CarterWise words revisited: 'There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice' Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents Is coronavirus the final Trump crisis? 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 ClintonClintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents Why Klobuchar should be Biden's vice presidential pick 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 Trump 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 BloombergFormer Bloomberg staffer seeks class-action lawsuit over layoffs Bloomberg spent over 0M on presidential campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response 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.