Every four years, students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington stage a Mock Convention – or “Mock Con” as it’s known – to predict who the party currently out of power in the White House will nominate to run for president of the United States. With Donald Trump expected to win today in New Hampshire, students are inching closer to a final prediction, to be announced at the Mock Convention this weekend. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler sat down with the leaders of Mock Con, as it’s called, to talk about this 108-year-old tradition, how students go about arriving at a prediction, and what it says about the GOP.
It would be hard to overstate the lure of Washington and Lee’s Mock Convention for some students.
RANDY KARLSON: Mock Con was something that actually drew me here.
JOHN CRUM: There’s no project like this that offers students the opportunity to understand the way the political system functions from a huge number of different angles.
KEVIN ORTIZ: I knew ever since high school I wanted to major in politics so to be in close proximity to D.C. but also have this Mock Convention and the fantastic faculty that we have here really drew me.
That’s Senior Randy Karlson, Junior John Crum and Senior Kevin Ortiz, respectively. Kevin is the guy ultimately responsible for predicting the Republican nominee for President—more about that in a minute. Senior Andrew McCaffery, a civil engineering major, was tapped to serve as Grand Chair by the 2012 governing committee. He and his team have been working on the 26th Mock Convention for four years—since they were First Year students. This, on top of being full time students.
ANDREW McCAFFERY: It was a chance to build a company up from the ground. Because we really are a half million dollar company, if not more, and with over 100 people on staff.
The budget comes primarily from fundraising by students. Mock Convention is essentially a research project executed by 56 state and territory delegations comprised of students tasked with conducting research in their respective states. They do this by studying the local political scene, interviewing political professors, GOP officials, elected officials, anyone they can talk to. They also look at public opinion polls and who has the best ground game in their respective states.
A lot rides on the outcome. In the convention’s long history, students have been wrong six times. They haven't been wrong about predicting a Republican nominee since 1948. But the 2016 prediction is a bit tricky, summed up by two words: Donald Trump. [UPDATE: To see who the predicted winner is this year, click here.]
ORTIZ: He starts off with his speech about immigrants from Mexico and everyone is like, Oh, that’s going to doom his candidacy.
This is political analyst Kevin Ortiz again:
ORTIZ: Well, no, he just continues to defy expectations. It’s hard for us on the political prediction team. Does he continue to defy expectations all the way to the White House?
The Mock Convention provides a snap shot of where the party is at any given time. And right now what it means to be a Republican is a contested thing.
ORTIZ: Is it going to be this country club type of party that it has been in the past or is it going to be much more of a grass roots populist organization, which we really saw in 2010 when the Tea Party made it’s big appearance on the national stage in helping Republicans take back the House of Representatives?
The New Hampshire primary, in which, as of primary day, Donald Trump leads in the polls, provides the final thrust toward a prediction. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win the nomination.
Another major draw for Mock Con is the speaker line-up, which in previous years has included Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. This year’s roster includes Republican heavyweights Dick Cheney, Newt Gringrich, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. Here’s Junior John Crum, co-communications director, again:
CRUM: We want to hear about the future of the party. We want to hear Republicans talk about what it means to be a Republican.
Author Kristen Anderson, who wrote a book about millennials and the GOP, is also onboard to speak, which is of particular interest to other Communications Director Randy Karlson:
KARLSON: I’m interested to see how she and the rest of the speakers addresses us as students this time when millennials are seemingly disengaged from politics and we’re actively defying that at convention weekend.
McCAFFERY: It seems like every time you’ve got a new generation, the young generation really don’t care about politics.
This is Grand Chair Andrew McCaffery talking.
McCAFFERY: This is an example of students going out of their way above and beyond the call of duty to say, No, take a look at what we think. This is important to us.
The Executive Committee wouldn’t drop any hints as to which way the winds are blowing. But the pressure’s on. Students inaccurately predicted Donald Trump as the winner of the Iowa Caucuses. Regardless, John Crum says the event is ultimately a huge learning experience.
CRUM: It offers practical experience in communications and P.R. [public relations], in fundraising, in accounting, in business, in marketing, in all dimensions of real world activity.
But seriously, what if Kevin Ortiz, the guy tasked with making the final prediction, gets it wrong? He seems pretty sanguine about it.
ORTIZ: My squash teacher has joked they’re all going to throw squash balls at me.
The sold out Mock Convention takes place this weekend. The predicted Republican nominee will be announced Saturday.