Every presidential election, there are a battery of stories that circulate among the punditry about how a third party candidate could emerge, a frontrunner could stumble or a major party could nominate somebody at a brokered convention. It is true that in 1992, Ross Perot ran as an independent and won 19% of the vote-and zero electoral votes. Some insist that Perot’s campaign cost President George H.W. Bush reelection, but a closer look at the data suggests that is not true. It is also true that in 1924, the Democrats took 103 ballots before nominating John Davis, who then lost badly to Calvin Coolidge in the general election. Nonetheless, in most presidential years, things play out reasonably predictably and without much drama.
As the 2016 election approaches, there is not a lot of talk about third party campaigns, probably because it is still too early for that. Instead, the scenarios that are drawing the most attention revolve around Hillary Clinton somehow not ending up as the Democratic nominee and a train wreck of a Republican Primary that leads to a brokered convention or other forms of political chaos. Both of these ideas are fun to think about, but very unlikely to occur.
The Hillary Clinton speculation initially was centered around the belief that she would not run, but now has pivoted to the view that she will squander her enormous lead. The most common evidence presented by that is that in 2008 Ms. Clinton was also a frontrunner but ended up losing the nomination in 2008. In 2008, Barack Obama was widely viewed as a strong candidate and a rising star of the Democratic Party. If his victory over Clinton, a real, but not extraordinary, upset, is the biggest such event in recent political history, it is evidence not that upsets happen, but that they happen rarely, and take a very modest form. For every Clinton stumble in 2008, there are cases of early frontrunners like Walter Mondale in 1984, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Al Gore in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2012 who started out as frontrunners and ended up as nominees.
Not all primaries have clear frontrunners. There was no clear candidate of that type for either party in 1968, on the Democratic side in 1976 or on the Democratic side in 2004. However, the pattern is clear, when there is an early frontrunner, that candidate almost always wins the nomination. Additionally, when there is no clear frontrunner, one almost always emerges relatively quickly. Wide open primaries occur, but they are very rare. The last genuinely wide open primary occurred in 1976 as Jimmy Carter went from being a minor candidate to winning his party’s nomination.
The Republican Party primary is unlike any other in history. There are over a dozen legitimate candidates with more sitting or former governors and senators seeming to enter the race every week. The latest round of entrants includes Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Lindsay Graham and George Pataki. If, as the primary season goes on, each candidate simply wins their home state, no frontrunner will emerge. This, however, is unlikely. The field will probably get smaller either through candidates dropping out or doing poorly in the first few primaries, relatively early in the process.
While it is possible that Scott Walker could win the caucus in neighboring Iowa, Mr. Christie could win in New Hampshire, favorite son Senator Graham could carry South Carolina, Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush could finish first and second in the state they served and other such as Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee could all carry their home states leading to a brokered convention, it is not likely. It is more plausible that several current candidates realize that getting drubbed in a few early primaries is not a good career move and drop out before the voting starts.
Presidential campaign are the most exciting events American politics have to offer. The drama, entertainment, quirkiness, colorful characters and high stakes in almost every recent presidential election have made it an unusual and compelling combination of theater, politics and competition with strong elements of drama and humor. Perhaps because of this, as the campaign approaches, expectations for more excitement and unpredictable turns of events soar, leading to predictions of third party candidacies and brokered conventions almost every election.
The drama, excitement and anticipation overshadow another reality about presidential elections. They are also boring and predictable. Both parties almost always nominate people who are either current or former governors, senators or holders of national office. The most recent exception to this rule occurred in 1952, when the Republicans nominated former general Dwight Eisenhower. Third party candidates do not win; the last one to do so was in 1860. Conventions are never brokered anymore; and frontrunners almost always win their party’s nomination. When they don’t, they tend to lose to well-funded challengers with strong support from some of their party’s establishment.
Over the next six months, as the voting approaches, we will read endlessly about how Ms. Clinton might stumble, how Bernie Sanders could manage to defeat Ms. Clinton, various Republican candidates who are poised to win the nomination against all odds and about the likelihood of a brokered Republican convention. This is all fodder for fun speculation and probably for a good television series, but it is not good analysis. What recent, and not so recent, history tells us is much more boring-Ms. Clinton will be the nominee; and the Republican nominee will be determined by early March. Additionally, that nominee will probably be one of the establishment favorites like Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio or Mr. Walker. This may be bad news for those confusing the presidential election with a reality television show, everything considered an understandable mistake, but it may also be a reflection of a political system that is more predicable than many would like to think.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell