In the real world of politics, we spent several months this year wondering if there would be a contested or brokered convention this summer in Cleveland when it looked, for a time, like Donald Trump might not amass enough delegates to clinch his party’s nomination. It was a fun time for political wonks who like the intricacies of party rules. What we learned before Trump clinched and made it all moot was that there are differences between a contested and brokered convention. If no candidate has amassed the requisite number of delegates to secure the nomination, the Republican convention would have been contested: In other words, all the delegates would have voted for their preferred candidate (although in the first round, most delegates would have been bound to a particular candidate). If a candidate had failed to reach the requisite number of candidates after the first ballot, then there would have been a brokered convention, whereby pledged delegates could switch their vote and pick someone who they thought was better for the party, regardless of how he or she fared in the primary. In other words, a man like John Kasich could have become the Republican nominee despite having only won one state.
It never came to that, of course, but the threat of it prepared many of us for the latest season of House of Cards, when Frank Underwood arranged to have an open convention, whereby the convention delegates would select his vice president (instead of choosing his own running mate). He had put his public support behind his Secretary of State, Catherine Durant, but secretly convinced one delegate to put his wife Claire up for consideration, as sort of a novelty vote. When Durant didn’t secure the necessary delegates on the first ballot, it became a brokered convention, and through a series of votes (and Frank Underwood’s behind-the-scenes threat to murder Catherine Durant), Claire Underwood eventually secured the vice presidential nomination, though she hadn’t even been in contention until the last minute.
It also, briefly, introduced another wrinkle. During the brokered convention, frustrated delegates who couldn’t amass enough support for one vice presidential candidate decided to open up the vote on the presidential candidate, as well, giving Underwood a scare before he managed to secure the votes necessary to get himself and his wife nominated as president and vice president. There was a brief moment, however, where it appeared that Heather Dunbar could have been named as the Democratic nominee despite having dropped out of the race months before.
Of course, the most common trope when it comes to television plotlines about presidents is the mostly straightforward use of the 25th Amendment, which puts the presidential succession plan into place in cases where the president is physically or mentally incapacitated. The most straightforward version of this is when the president dies and the vice president succeeds him or her. This can be seen in, for instance, the short-lived Commander in Chief, when Vice President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) invokes the 25th Amendment when the president falls into a coma (he later dies, making her the president, against even the president’s wishes to have a woman hold the office.
There have been a number of wrinkles here, however. In 24, for instance, it was President David Palmer’s Cabinet who invoked the 25th Amendment because Palmer was making irrational decisions. Vice President Jim Prescott was named acting president, despite never winning an election. Meanwhile, in Scandal, Vice President Sally Langston also invoked the 25th Amendment after President Grant was shot twice in the head and left in a coma. She was president for two weeks, despite never having won an election.
House of Cards made interesting use of the 25th Amendment as well. As Speaker of the House, Frank Underwood convinced the vice president to resign his position to run for Governor of Pennsylvania. Underwood then convinced the president to allow him to succeed as vice president under the 25th Amendment. As Vice President, Underwood undermined his own president to such an extent that the President himself eventually resigned amid falling public support. Underwood managed, again, to use the 25th Amendment to take over as president. In other words, Underwood manipulated the 25th Amendment to work his way from Speaker of the House to president of the United States without a vote ever being cast.
Perhaps the most famous use of the 25th Amendment in television, however, came in the fourth season of The West Wing, when President Bartlett recognized he was incapable of acting impartially or in the best interests of the nation after his daughter was kidnapped. He invoked the 25th Amendment, but because the vice president’s office was vacant due to a recent scandal, succession fell to the Speaker of the House, who belonged to another party. Briefly, Acting President Walken (John Goodman) even tried to fill the office of the vice president himself while he was in power. Bartlett returned to office before the acting president could do so.
In the 12th episode of the West Wing, we also learned about designated survivors, after Josh was ordered to choose a member of the Cabinet to sit out the State of the Union address. In the event of an attack on the Capitol that kills everyone else in the line of succession, the designated survivor becomes president. We’ll see that scenario come to fruition this fall in a new Kiefer Sutherland series, Designated Survivor. Not only is Sutherland’s character a low-level cabinet member, he was supposed to be fired on the day he was named the designated survivor.