It’s Apparently Time To Discuss The Brokered Convention Fantasy Again
The quadrennial fantasy of a brokered convention, which American politics has not seen since 1952, is rearing its head again, and it's no more likely now than it was when we talked about this four years ago.
Every four years, there inevitably comes a time when political pundits start talking about the possibility that one party’s nomination race or another’s won’t be decided by the time the primary process is over and that the nation will see something it hasn’t seen in more than sixty years, a brokered convention in which a party nominee is not decided on the first ballot. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were immersed in a battle for delegates that Clinton did not ultimately concede until after the final primary in June of that year, there were many who speculated about delegate battles between the two campaigns that could go right to the convention floor. In that race, perhaps, the speculation was at plausible at least for a time, but even there it had become clear by at least May that the math was inevitably pointing toward an Obama win. Four years ago, though, the ‘brokered convention’ speculation his its fever pitch in the race for the GOP nomination. At several points during that election cycle, the fact that various candidates kept rising and falling as conservatives seemingly searched for an alternative to Mitt Romney led to several rounds of pundit speculation about a brokered convention, much of which we discussed here at Outside The Beltway — see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. This speculation continued even as it became apparent that, notwithstanding the fact that candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich continued to stay in the race, Mitt Romney was still headed toward a victory, that pundits were overstating the strength of his competitors, and that Romney had more delegates than all of his competitors combined by the end of March 2012.
On some level, of course, this speculation is understandable. Political reporters and pundits need to find something to write about and, given the fact that there are always slow points during any campaign, it’s inevitable that we’ll start to see speculation about what might happen even when there’s no real evidence to support the idea that it could happen. Additionally, there is admittedly something exciting for political junkies about the idea of a political convention that ends up being something more than the coronation combined with boring speeches that modern conventions have become. Some of the best (and worst) moments in American history can be found in party conventions, in fact, whether its the 1860 Republican Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln, the Democratic Party Convention that year that resulted in a north-south split in the party that presaged the one that would happen just months later for real, the great conventions of the late 19th Century when orators like William Jennings Bryan captivated audiences in an era before microphones, the 1924 Democratic Convention that lasted two weeks and took 103 ballots to pick a nominee, the 1948 Democratic Convention that led to the split of the Dixiecrats and set the Democratic Party down the road that led to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, and, of course, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Compared to the rather stale, corporate-sponsored affairs of today, these en conventions were actually interesting, even important, so it makes sense that people who love politics would long for those days again.
Perhaps, inevitably, the brokered convention talk is starting up again, thanks in large part to a Washington Post reported about party insiders preparing for the possibility of no candidate having a majority of delegates when the GOP rolls into Cleveland, or even the idea of using a floor fight to deny Donald Trump the nomination should he be ahead in the delegate count at that point:
Republican officials and leading figures in the party’s establishment are preparing for the possibility of a brokered convention as businessman Donald Trump continues to sit atop the polls in the GOP presidential race.
More than 20 of them convened Monday near the Capitol for a dinner held by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and the prospect of Trump nearing next year’s nominating convention in Cleveland with a significant number of delegates dominated the discussion, according to five people familiar with the meeting.
Weighing in on that scenario as Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listened, several longtime Republican power brokers argued that if the controversial billionaire storms through the primaries, the party’s establishment must lay the groundwork for a floor fight in which the GOP’s mainstream wing could coalesce around an alternative, the people said.
The development represents a major shift for veteran Republican strategists, who until this month had spoken of a brokered convention only in the most hypothetical terms — and had tried to encourage a drama-free nomination by limiting debates and setting an earlier convention date.
Now, those same leaders see a floor fight as a real possibility. And so does Trump, who said in an interview last week that he, too, is preparing.
Because of the sensitivity of the topic — and because they are wary of saying something that, if leaked, would provoke Trump to bolt the party and mount an independent bid — Priebus and McConnell were mostly quiet during the back-and-forth. They did not signal support for an overt anti-Trump effort.
But near the end, McConnell and Priebus acknowledged to the group that a deadlocked convention is something the party should prepare for, both institutionally within the RNC and politically at all levels in the coming months.
During the dinner, attendees delved into what exactly a brokered convention would look like. It would happen if no candidate was able to win the nomination on a first-ballot vote, starting a multi-ballot exercise on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena that could extend for hours until a candidate has secured sufficient support.
Many of the delegates are “bound” on the first ballot, meaning they must support the candidate they chose in primaries or at state conventions. But that restriction would lift if no nominee is chosen. The jockeying for delegates on a second ballot — or third, fourth or fifth — would be intense and full of political dealmaking, thus the term “brokered” convention.
Upon leaving the Monday dinner, several attendees said they would share memos about delegate allocation in each state as well as research about the 1976 convention, the last time the GOP gathered without a clear nominee
Off the top, it’s worth saying that there’s not necessarily anything remarkable about Republican Party insiders discussing the idea of a deadlocked convention and the need to be prepared for the possibility that it could happen. While there will be previously adopted rules that will cover the procedural aspects of what happens in the event nobody is able to secure the nomination on the first ballot, the fact that this would be something that hasn’t happened in either party since 1952 means that the people in charge should at least have some plan for how things would proceed, because it would likely not be apparent until late in the process that such an event could happen. So, no matter how unlikely the possibility of a brokered convention might be, it makes sense on some level for the party to have a game plan ready to go in the unlikely event that it happens.
Whether or not a brokered convention is really a possibility, though, depends upon how likely it is that no candidate will arrive in Cleveland with enough delegates to claim a majority on the first ballot. In that regard, many pundits are pointing to delegate allocation rules that, combined with the number of candidates still in the race, make that a real possibility:
The rules for selection of delegates are complicated — and largely decided state by state. Most states now elect delegates on a proportional basis, with at-large statewide delegates supplemented by delegates awarded by each congressional district.
This makes the task of securing delegates more difficult in many states, because Republican candidates must, in some cases, push for support in overwhelmingly Democratic districts.
They must also qualify for each state’s ballot in order to win any delegates at all, making the arduous series of state-by-state rules governing ballot access a potentially critical factor as well.
It was not supposed to unfold this way. After Romney’s 2012 defeat, which followed a protracted nomination season, the RNC moved to speed up the process. In August, Priebus predicted a swift and relatively painless nomination contest, two months after Trump jumped in the race. “We’re going to have a nominee probably by the end of March or the beginning of April,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The problem facing the party — a crowded field led by a billionaire firebrand — was evident Thursday, a deadline to qualify for the Virginia presidential primary. According to the state GOP, 13 candidates qualified. Given the acrimony and uncertainty — and the relative ease of fundraising — there is little incentive for any of them to drop out
Under the right circumstances, of course, it is possible that the number of candidates in the race would combine with the proportional allocation of delegates to make it difficult for any candidate to get a majority of committed delegates prior to the convention. In order for that to happen, though, it seems clear that there would have to be a sustained period in which there were not only a large number of candidates still in the race, but also that these candidates were receiving a large enough share of the vote to actually be awarded delegates. In many states that award delegates proportionally, a candidate must get a minimum threshold of the vote to get any delegates at all. In some cases, this number is as low as 5% of the vote, in some it is high as 10% of the vote. Candidates who are below that threshold would get no delegates at all. Using the RealClearPolitics national average as a guide, for example, there are currently only four candidates above either 10% or 5% at the moment, and the situation the same in Iowa. In New Hampshire, there are seven candidates above five percent, and in South Carolina and Florida it’s five candidates. Additionally, under RNC rules only those states that hold primaries before March 15th are required to award delegates proportionally. States with primaries or caucuses after that are free to award delegates either proportionally or on a winner-take-all basis, a decision generally left for the state party to decide based on its own rules. Given this the number of candidates who may actually have an impact on the race is likely to end up being small regardless of how many “official” candidates are still in the race.
Another factor undercutting the brokered convention theory is the fact that it is still fairly unlikely that the 13 or so candidates still in the race are all going to be in the race for very long after the Iowa Caucuses, if they even get that far. Notwithstanding their insistence to the contrary, it seems unlikely that candidates like Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham are long for this world. Similarly, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Rand Paul are unlikely to last very much longer if their poll numbers continue to drop and, consequently, their fundraising begins to drop out. Either Chris Christie or John Kasich will have to do well in New Hampshire for their campaign to have an reason to continue, so one or both of them is likely be out by mid to late February. Finally, notwithstanding the money they have raised it seems difficult to see how either Ben Carson or Jeb Bush could maintain a credible campaign if they underperform in the early states. Very early in 2016, then, the Republican field, which already seems to be consolidating, could shrink significantly, and that will make the likelihood of a brokered convention caused by the failure of any candidate to grab enough delegates for a first ballot majority unlikely if not impossible.
Finally, it’s worth noting one part of the RNC rules that would seemingly make a brokered convention. Under Rule 40(b), a candidate must have a clear majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to have their name placed on the ballot for the nomination. Taking into account the fact that most of the 27 states that will have primaries or caucuses after March 15th are likely to award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, it seems unlikely that there would be a large number of candidates that will qualify for the ballot at the convention even if we did have the unlikely event of none of them having the majority to win on the first ballot. It’s also worth noting that, under the RNC Rules, no changes to this or any of the other convention rules can impact what happens in 2016 since they would only take effect with the 2020 Convention.
None of this will dissuade people from speculating about a brokered convention, of course, and it’s always possible that the scenario I’ve sketched out above will not unfold and that we’ll have a chaotic race where a lot of candidates are winning delegates all the way through March. As things stand right now, though, that doesn’t seem very likely. So, yes, it makes sense for Republican Party officials to at least be prepared for the possibility of a brokered convention, but the fact that they discussed that possibility over dinner on Monday night shouldn’t lead anyone to think that such an event is any more likely in 2016 than it has in any time in the past four decades or so.