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 BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats seek leverage for trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE is spent and that Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left MORE (D-Mass.) is un-electable.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 The Memo: Pelosi-Trump trade deal provokes debate on left 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 ClintonDemocrats seek leverage for trial Davis: Trump vs. Clinton impeachments – the major differences Sharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' MORE, but these elected politicians started moving to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's intervention on military justice system was lawful and proper The mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington 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 KerryConservatives rip FBI over IG report: 'scathing indictment' Live coverage: DOJ inspector general testifies on Capitol Hill Mellman: Looking to Iowa 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 BennetTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Schumer to colleagues running for White House: Impeachment comes first Sanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate MORE or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg MORE — might be Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres surprise DC elementary school with new computer lab, 0K donation Hillary Clinton documentary to premiere at Sundance Obama issues statement praising Paul Volcker 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 CarterThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Remembering Paul Volcker, the man who tamed inflation Jimmy Carter released from hospital 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 ClintonParties clash as impeachment articles move closer to House vote USA Today editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment House's proposed impeachment articles are serious grounds to remove the president 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 TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 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 Rubens BloombergThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Krystal Ball warns about lagging youth support for Buttigieg Bloomberg unveils proposal to increase earned income tax credit, federal funding for housing programs 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.