Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Let's be Frank

Five things Donald Trump could learn about party conventions from House of Cards




THE TALE OF an outspoken political maverick’s lust for power has been gripping the world this month. And even as the drama’s events have become less and less believable with each passing episode, still we can’t stop tuning in.

But enough about Donald Trump.

Has anyone been watching House of Cards?


Stranger than fiction 

The folks at Netflix obviously couldn’t be seen letting a US general election year go by without producing a season of the hit drama.

And while the story of Frank Underwood’s against-the-odds ascent through the political ranks clearly has a parallel in the real-life GOP battle this year, the show has been prescient in another area too.

The main political deck-shuffling set-piece in Season Four of the series concerns an ‘open’ convention – as delegates cast their votes for a vice-presidential nominee to run alongside Frank (Kevin Spacey) in his upcoming re-election battle.

But as always with House of Cards, there’s non-stop action behind the scenes, and the main players’ public comments on the situation rarely tally with what they’re really planning: the preferences of state delegates shift erratically from vote to vote at the mass party meeting – but all the while Frank’s back there in the shadows, pulling the strings.

Back in the real world 

In the wake of events this week, there’s every chance we’ll see similar convention floor scenes play out later this year as the Republican Party meets to select its presidential nominee in Cleveland in July.

While Donald Trump continued to rack up the delegates in last Tuesday’s primary votes, he’s still a pretty weak frontrunner – lagging well behind the pace set by John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney four years ago.

John Kasich’s win in his home state of Ohio means he’ll be sticking in the GOP race alongside Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz – and both will be snatching delegates at the businessman’s expense in the remaining contests of the primary season.

NBC News / YouTube

Trump needs to pass the magic 1,237 mark the clinch the nomination outright.

If he doesn’t, things will get interesting.

House of Cards interesting? Perhaps.

We’re not sure whether the Trump Organisation founder has caught up with the latest exploits of Frank and Claire Underwood just yet. And while he’ll no doubt be sending someone down the library to put together a reading list on US party conventions, The Donald could also learn a thing or two from how the most terrifying couple ever to stalk the hallways of a fictional White House got on this year…

1. You’ll need to get good at maths, fast

Or at least make sure the people around you are.

Trump will have a fairly good idea of what he might be in for before he arrives in Ohio this summer.

After Kasich’s win this week, it’s looking ever more likely that nobody will reach that magic 1,237 number before July. If that’s the case, the outcome would be what is known as a ‘brokered’ convention in which the delegates – who normally play a purely symbolic role, effectively rubber-stamping the results of primaries – take on a new significance.

For the first round ballot, party rules oblige delegates to back the candidate to whom they were pledged in the primaries. Those tied to candidates no longer in the race, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, would not vote.

Republican National Convention 1988 Associated Press Ronald Reagan supporters at the GOP conference in 1988, as the outgoing President addressed the crowd. Associated Press

However based on the results of the primaries, that first round would not produce a majority, and the vote would go to a second round – after which, other candidates come back into play.

In House of Cards, of course, things were slightly different. Secretary of State Catherine Durant went into the convention expecting to emerge as Frank’s running mate, and assuming enough work had been done behind the scenes for her to win.

Which brings us to our next lesson…

2. Don’t expect things to go to plan

It’s worth noting here that, in additional to one party conference happening in real-life and the other being fictional, the politicians in House of Cards were Democrats not Republicans. There are obviously differences between the two parties’ methods for choosing a nominee.

Anyway… As we discussed, based on the results of the GOP primaries it’s unlikely the first round of this summer’s convention vote will produce a majority, in which case the vote will go to a second round.

The majority of states free their delegates after the first ballot: that means those delegates could change their votes and may gravitate towards an alternative candidate in subsequent rounds. That’s when the backroom deal-making starts and things start becoming less and less predictable.

In the Netflix show, one delegate’s decision (the result of some behind the scenes wrangling, courtesy of Frank) to cast his vote in favour of First Lady Claire Underwood as vice-presidential nominee sets up the chain of events that lead to her eventual nomination.


3. The arcane process can throw up some strange results

It may seem a little odd that someone who hasn’t expressed any particular public interest in the job could end up being a nominee, as happened in House of Cards.

But, yes, it could really happen.

Names like 2012 vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and even ticket-topper Mitt Romney are being mooted as possible establishment candidates who could be parachuted in as part of of a GOP ‘Stop Trump’ effort.

“It’s not going to be me. It should be somebody running for president,” Ryan, who’s now House Speaker, said this week – pledging to be ‘Switzerland’ as he oversees the process this summer.

You never know what could happen – and while such a scenario remains a possibility, it would require a rule change (see below).

4. Beware of gamesmanship

The conceit in House of Cards was that the Underwoods’ publicly supported Durant’s candidacy, but all the while they were scheming behind-the-scenes to get Claire the number two position on the ticket.

“There are rules regarding all sorts of aspects of nominee selection,” Columbia University professor Greg Wawro told Entertainment Weekly, in their fact-check of the show.

One of the things I think House of Cards has been good at is focusing on how institutions and rules can be manipulated in order to produce certain outcomes.

fr House of Cards House of Cards

An obscure GOP panel, the 112-member Rules Committee, will have tremendous power to influence the outcome of the vote in the run-up to the convention.

‘Rule 40′ is something the party establishment will be concerned about too. It states that a candidate needs to win the majority of delegates in at least eight states to be deemed viable at the convention. That could be changed, however, if the powers-that-be want to clear the way for a Romney or a Ryan to enter the fray.

Expect all manner of positioning, arm-twisting and backroom dealing as campaigns and factions bid to change the rules, or maintain those that give them an advantage.

5. Have the best speech of your life in your back-pocket, just in case

Claire had some help from an award-winning novelist as she prepared to make the ‘speech of her life’ accepting the nomination (said novelist had a much closer relationship with the First Lady than most speechwriters would with their employer, but that’s not our concern here).

Although the Underwoods, via their usual Machiavellian shenanigans, managed to skew the convention overwhelmingly in their favour, Claire still had to win over the viewing public with a speech aiming at putting to bed any accusations of nepotism or patronage.

cl2 House of Cards House of Cards

Trump (who doesn’t appear to have much of an affinity for scripted speeches) will have a similarly steep mountain to climb if he emerges with the nomination.

Can the businessman expand his appeal beyond his base of viscerally angry, mostly white supporters? What can he say to ease the concerns of foreign leaders, unnerved by his irascible demeanor on the campaign trail?

The nominee said this week that he mostly consults with himself on foreign policy issues because he’s said a lot of things and has “a very good brain” (this is true).

So, yes. Pre-written speech definitely a priority.

- Some additional reporting on the GOP race via AFP. 

Read: Donald Trump is stepping up attacks on “crazy” Megyn Kelly and her “bad show”

Read: Donald Trump poses a real risk to the entire world

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.