Black smoke continues to rise from the chimney at the Sistine Chapel, signalling that the cardinals have yet to agree on a new pope.
We don’t know the actual vote — the cardinals are sworn to secrecy on that — but we do know one thing. Unless there was a tie, somebody’s in the lead, and somebody’s in second. And the more balloting that goes on, somebody’s either rising or falling.
I don’t mean to equate what is supposed to be a divinely-inspired selection of the new pontiff with the messy, grubby business of electoral politics, but to the extent that people are involved, well, there are some politics involved. And, historically speaking, there are certain dynamics that take place in multi-candidate, multi-ballot elections.
So back to where we stated the obvious: Somebody finished that first ballot in the lead and somebody was in the second. At that point, there’s the expectations game. Yes, Candidate A finished first, but did they meet or exceed expectations? If they did, does that mean they’re the candidate to rally around? Or does it mean they’re weak and supporters should look elsewhere? And if you don’t particularly like Candidate A, does that mean you should rally around Candidate B to stop them, even if you really prefer Candidate C or D or E?
We need to look no further than Virginia political history for some examples.
* Perhaps the most famous nominating convention in Virginia history was the 1978 Republican gathering to pick a candidate for U.S. Senate. There were four candidate — long-time party leader Dick Obenshain, former Navy Secretary John Warner, former Gov. Linwood Holton and state Sen. Nathan Miller of Rockingham County. Obenshain led on the first ballot, and then proceeded to gain strength on subsequent ballots and eventually won – an example of first ballot strength translating into a later-ballot victory. (Tragically, of course, Obenshain was killed in a plane crash not long afterwards; he’s buried in Botetourt County, and the runner-up, Warner, was quickly named as his successor.)
* Less famous but even closer to home for us here in the Blue Ridge was the 1982 Republican convention to pick a 6th District candidate for Congress after Caldwell Butler of Roanoke announced his retirement. Ray Garland of Roanoke was the clear front-runner over a slate of lesser-known candidates, but conservatives felt Garland was too moderate. Conservatives eventually rallied around Kevin Miller of Harrisonburg, and he won a majority in later balloting — an example of a front-runner being denied the victory.
* Much the same thing happened in the 1985 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor — former attorney general and former gubernatorial candidates Marshall Coleman was the best-known of multiple candidates, but delegates considered him too moderate (and also blamed him for the party’s loss in 1981) and rallied around the lesser-known but more conservative John Chichester.
Now, those were both cases of a well-known front-runner vs. multiple lesser-known candidates. For an example of two closely-matched front-runners getting knocked out in favor of a compromise candidate, you need look no further than the 2009 Democratic nomination for governor. That was a primary, not a convention, but much the same dynamic was in play. Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran were locked in tight combat, until voters decided enough of that, and moved en masse to dark horse Creigh Deeds at the last minute.
One big difference, though, is this: The primary required only a a plurality, the conventions a majority. But the papal vote requires a two-thirds majority, which means a determined minority could hold out and block the nomination of a majority front-runner. History buffs will recall that the Democrats used to require a two-thirds majority to win their presidential nominations — one reason why it took the party 103 ballots in 1924 to settle on a nominee.
The rules for choosing for a pope specify that if no pope is selected after 33 ballots, then the 34th ballot is a run-off between the top two contenders. An incentive, perhaps, for front-runners to hold out?
* That brings to mind the 1992 Democratic convention to pick a 6th District candidate for Congress after Jim Olin of Roanoke announced his retirement. There were three candidates: Steve Musselwhite and John Fishwick entered with the most committed delegates; John Edwards was a distant third. The rules required that the last-place finisher drop out — meaning Musselwhite and Fishwick could effectively force Edwards out and get an instant run-off. Edwards cleverly lined up some other candidates — to try to prolong the vote. But the Musselwhite and Fishwick forces held firm, knowing that if they did, they’d get the two-vote vote they were both seeking. After five ballots, that’s how it played out — with Musselwhite defeating Fishwick by 11 votes in the final tally. (He went on to lose that fall to Republican Bob Goodlatte.)
Thus concludes your history lesson for the day. Which of these dynamics will play out in the Vatican? Or maybe some other dynamic will take hold?
We’ll know (maybe) when we see some white smoke.
Any famous conventions that our readers care to cite?
UPDATE: CNN reports white smoke, meaning a new pope has been named. So, as we learn more, it will be interesting to see which of these dynamics, if any, the voting followed.