If the races in each party remain as muddled as at present, pretty soon the pundits will be abuzz over the possible “May surprise”, that is, late breaking development that could arguably upset the presidential nominating process. Joe Biden’s entry into the race, if Hillary and Bernie are stalemated, for example. Another example, Marco Rubio’s late primary strategy. As we have said before, the problem with a late white hope is that it cuts against the grain of history.
A good precedent for the latecomer scenario is the 1976 Democratic contest. The race had been going on for over a year, and about half the primaries (16 including the Iowa caucus) had already occurred when two new entrants jumped into the race. The earlier field had been cleared and Jimmy Carter seemed to be coasting to a first ballot nomination. Then California Governor Jerry Brown and Idaho Senator Frank Church suddenly threw their hats into the ring.
Brown and Church demonstrated significant strength. Starting on May 18 to the end of the primary process on June 8, the pair defeated Carter in six major primaries (Brown won Maryland, Nevada and California; Church took Idaho, Oregon and Montana).
The problem was Carter had such a head start, not only in terms of delegates already won, but in terms of campaign momentum. Thus although party chieftains were uncertain by this outsider from Georgia, the Carter machine rolled out seven more primary victories once Brown and Church were in the race.
Bottom line: Carter rolled to an easy first ballot victory at the convention.
Lesson: Politics today requires so much money, organization and so forth, the task facing any late entrant is daunting. Thus barring some disaster befalling the existing leading candidates, a late entrant is not going to make much headway. As for Senator Rubio, unless he racks up an early win somewhere, the preceding analysis suggests by the time the field gets winnowed, it may be too late to move the needle significantly.