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 BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE is spent and that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks 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 SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere 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 ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE, but these elected politicians started moving to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFive things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' Texas warehouse where migrants housed in 'cages' closed for humane renovation 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 KerryBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Biden soars as leader of the free world The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday 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 BennetDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Hickenlooper ousts Gardner in Colorado, handing Democrats vital pickup Lobbying world MORE or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly MORE — might be Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Obama sold record-breaking 1.7 million copies of memoir in first week Media and Hollywood should stop their marching-to-Georgia talk 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 CarterCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' French radio station mistakenly publishes obituaries of celebrities 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 ClintonBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Obama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle 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 TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden 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 BloombergBiden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security The secret weapon in Biden's fight against climate change Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' 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.