The Brokered Convention Fantasy

Yesterday, James wrote about the buzz over a possible brokered GOP convention. Not only is this is meme that floats every four years, it is bolstered this year by the fact that the GOP field is especially crowded this year.

However, while it is true that at the moment there appears to be no frontrunner, I really see no realistic way that we will go through the primary/caucus process and end up with no candidate who does not have well over 50% of the delegates pledged to support him at the convention.

Here’s the deal, and it is one that hardcore political junkies to accept sometimes: despite the seemingly eternal campaign, we are still in the preseason here. Until the voters start voting, and the candidates start to feel the effects of support (or the lack thereof) will we really be able to say that no frontrunner exists or that none seems imminent. I predict that one or more of the serious candidates (i.e., Romney, McCain, Huckabee, Giuliani, Thompson) will emerge from Iowa/New Hamsphire seriously wounded, and the winnowing will begin. Indeed, I find it rather unlikely that we will make it out of February without knowing who the the nominee is to be.

We go through some version of this speculation practically every four years, as there is some point (prior to votes being cast, usually) wherein it just seems like there is no way that the voters are ready to coalesce around a candidate. Remember back in 2004 where it seemed as if it could be Dean, Kerry,or Edwards? (or even Gephart or Clark?). Yet, after Iowa Gephart was gone and Dean was mortally wounded, and by New Hampshire Dean was toast. Soon, there was only Kerry (who had looked dead a few months earlier).

For a brokered convention scenario to emerge there would have to be solid (if not unshakable) support for a number of candidates along regional lines/specific states in a way that the delegates would balance out and continue to stay balanced, contest after contest. The closet thing to a regional advantage that any candidate has is Huckabee in the South (and that is not a sure thing at this point), and while Romney and Giuliani may have some allegiances in the Northeast, neither has a rock-solid lock. Indeed, and more to the point, no one has a clear lock on much of anything, meaning that the likelihood is that someone will start to quickly lose the soft support that they currently have, making way for consolidation around a candidate over the course of the first several primaries. The fact that there are lot of choices and no clear frontrunner really isn’t the best scenario for a brokered convention, even if that seems to be the caes at first blush. A brokered convention would require two or three candidates with a strong base that would be unlikely to shift until the bitter end. There are no candidates who have supporters of that type. As such, there is plenty of room for defections and changed minds.

Further, and this is key: most of the GOP state-level rules allocate delegates on some version of a winner-take-all basis. This means that even if support for candidates is split, plurality wins will start to lead to accumulation of delegates. Even if different candidates are splitting wins, someone will start winning larger states and accumulating more delegates. It would take a rather odd (and improbable) patchwork of wins to different candidates for the delegate counts to remain roughly equal over the course of several state contests. The majority of the state GOP delegate selection processes award a certain number of delegates to the winner of the most votes at the state level and then allocate the rest to the winners of the most votes per congressional district. And while the by-district model just allow for the splitting of some delegate in a state, the typical trend is for the candidate with the plurality lead statewide to normally also have a plurality in most of the Congressional districts as well.

For example: if I go to a state with a winner-take-all allocation, and I win the state with 27% of the vote, with the remaining vote split amongst numerous candidates, I come away with 100% of the the delegates. Yes, the party is still split on its preference, but I have made a large stride towards my goal of winning the nomination, while my compadres have gained nothing. Even in a case wherein I win the state and split some of the Congressional districts with the others, I am still making greater progress towards my goal of a an absolute majority of delegates. Again, the math tends to catch up with the guys who are coming in second, third and fourth. Money dries up. Voters begin to doubt that their guy can win and shift to their second and third choices.

Put another way: even if the top three, four or five candidates continue to have some significant support with GOP voters, the allocation of delegates will not directly mirror those poll numbers because the delegates are not allocated in any way that is perfectly proportional to support—far from it. Candidates will start to lose, and losing will bolster others, and a clear winner will emerge.

Also remember: not all states have the same number of delegates and so some wins mean less than others in terms of delegate counts.

As such, the odds of a brokered convention are quite low. (And really, at this point arguments in favor of such an outcome are wishful thinking).

This post was adapted from one posted earlier in the week at PoliBlog

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Beldar says:

    I respectfully disagree. I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that we’ll begin the convention with no candidate having 50%+ pledged on the first ballot. That would mean that the nominee would be chosen by and at the convention, somehow.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean the convention will be consciously, deliberately “brokered,” though. Consider, for example, a scenario that I think is entirely likely, in which Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson each come into the convention with 20-25% of the delegates each, with the remainder split between McCain and Huckabee. McCain won’t agree to be anyone’s Veep (although he might agree to be someone’s SecDef); Huck would presumably love a Veep slot rather than setting up his fishing shack back in the Ozarks, and might also be bought off with a cabinet slot (e.g., H&HR) on a subject near and dear to him. But will either of them be in a realistic position to actually “deliver” he delegates originally pledged to him on the first ballot? I think they might be somewhat influential, but not decisively so.

    How that quarter of the delegates is redistributed (via brokering) or redistributes itself (based on issues and second choices) will shape the dynamics of the convention. And it’s at that point where delegates who are not already committed to either Romney or Giuliani will decisively reveal their discomfort with both as being “true life-long conservatives.” I personally think Thompson’s likely to be the second choice of those Huckabee or McCain delegates.

    Next to crater will be Romney. He’s five years younger than Thompson, and a Thompson/Romney ticket would look a lot like Reagan/Bush-41 did in 1980 (with Romney as heir apparent from day one). And he probably can steer most of his delegates in a brokered arrangement. Thus does Thompson beat Giuliani on the second ballot.

    I think a deadlocked convention that takes forty ballots to produce a compromise, dark-horse nominee is ridiculously unlikely. But I think you’re way over-estimating the persuasive band-wagon effect of the very earliest states (Iowa & New Hampshire). It’s not an accident that the GOP race is wide open now, and there’s not really a good reason — except for conventional wisdom and wishful thinking (which the present wide-open race already controvert) — to believe that the race can’t stay genuinely open up until the convention.

  2. I respectfully disagree back ‘atcha! 🙂

    And by “brokered” I simply mean one in which deals would have to be struck at the convention (or, really, any scenario in which there was no clear winner going into the event). BTW, I am not certain, but I am fairly sure that delegates are not automatically released from their pledges if there is a failure to reach a majority on the first ballot.

    Seriously, this isn’t going to happen. It simply isn’t. The structure of the process (and I don’t simply mean IA/NH) makes it virtually impossible that it will result in a brokered convention/the convention mattering at all. We haven’t even come close since the current procedures have been in place–even when there was hefty competition for the nomination, say in 1980, for example. (And I referring here only to the GOP side of things, as the Democratic Party and its “Superdelegates” virtually assures that there will never be a brokered convention for them).

    If it does happen, I will gladly go online and say that I was wrong, but this is one of those situations where the odds are so in my favor, that I have no problem sticking to my position rather vociferously.

    To get a scenario where there would be no designated nominee at the end of the primary/caucus process, you would have to have different states rotating winners, and in a way that fairly evenly distributed delegates. This is incredibly unlikely.

    Your scenario wherein there is a 4-to-5-way tie is utter fantasy. The reason there is not front-runner now is because all of the candidates have soft support, not because each has a firm 20-25% of it, and even if they did, that wouldn’t produce your scenario-as it would require each of the 4 or 5 top candidates to have really strong support in a specific 1/4th of the country, not in each state.

    Plus, soft support means that defecting from one’s first choice is easier than if one were strongly committed.

    Candidates will start to falter, and falter early, and the field will narrow.

    Again: remember Dean in 2004. Frontrunner one day, late night monologue fodder the next.

  3. Boyd says:

    As much as I hate to disagree with a fellow Texan I respect as much as Beldar, I’m gonna hafta agree with the good Dr from Troy on this one.

    Seriously, Beldar, while it’s possible, it seems to me to be vanishingly unlikely that the state-by-state votes will unfold in such a way to have three strong candidates for nomination.

    I’ll be happy to sit at the table with Dr Taylor for that huge helping of crow in March if the Republican nominee hasn’t been determined by then.

  4. Boyd,

    If it helps any, I, too, am a native Texan (heck, my Ph.D. is from the University of Texas, in fact!).

  5. Beldar says:

    Softness of support disappears the instant the vote is cast. For that vote, in that primary, for any given candidate, support is either 100% or 0%.

    On a single day, Feb. 5th, almost half of the GOP delegates (1113 of about 2500 total) will be selected by voters who — by definition — will only know the results of primaries in 8 previous states, only two of which (FL and MI) are large states, and which altogether will have selected only 299 delegates. Moreover, a large chunk of those 299 will not be counted unless the GOP goes back on its sanctions on states holding “too-early” primaries.

    That historically unique circumstance all by itself makes it entirely possible that three to five candidates may each pick up several hundred delegates that day — resulting in chaos which then may persist through the close-following primaries (awarding 300+ delegates) on Feb. 9th & 12th.

    The compressed schedule means that what’s traditionally weeded out candidates — a long stretch where funds have essentially stopped flowing to apparent also-rans — isn’t going to happen. Romney can self-finance, but otherwise, the winners on Feb. 5, for example, aren’t going to be able to raise massive new funds and buy TV time in time for the 12th.

    You’re using tried and true assumptions, I agree. But the game has changed. Surely you’ll at least agree that a brokered convention is more probable this cycle than it has been in recent ones, even if you still think that probability is quite small, won’t you?

  6. Softness of support disappears the instant the vote is cast. For that vote, in that primary, for any given candidate, support is either 100% or 0%.

    But we aren’t talking about one vote, we are talking about many. Iowa influences New Hampshire, New Hampshire South Carolina and several other smaller contest, which influence Feb. 5th, which influences the next bit. There will be candidates affected all along the chain.

    BTW, in the past while there were states that were drain out and late, they rarely mattered. Historically candidates have started dropping out from the get go and some will again this cycle. The compression is not as dramaticv as you are making it out to be. Again, think back to 2004 to a scattered field with shifting front runners, yet somehow we went from numerous possibilities to Kerry by February.

    I will concede that this year the chance are higher than in years past, but only slightly. I would argue that in the past the chances were, say, 1% and this year maybe they are 5% or a few ticks higher–but those are still long odds.

    Miami has a better chance of beating the Patriots this weekend by far than there is of a brokered convention.

  7. Beldar says:

    Re when delegates are “released,” I haven’t researched any other states, but Rule 38, section 10(b) of the current Texas GOP rules (at .pdf pp. 19-20) requires a delegate to be faithful on the first ballot unless the candidate has died, withdrawn, or released his votes, and faithful on the second ballot unless the candidate has withdrawn or released his votes. But starting on the third ballot, delegates are automatically released unless their pledged candidate has gotten at least 20% on the prior ballot. And on the fourth ballot, they’re unconditionally released, whether the candidate likes it or not.

    My guess is that something similar is common by state rule in most other states, and the national GOP rules permit the states to make these sorts of choices.

    If a third- or fourth-place candidate is stubborn (does that sound to you like, oh, John McCain or Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson), but he still has some hundreds of delegates and there’s no majority vote-holder going into the convention, wouldn’t this cut strongly in favor of him trying to get something in exchange for his delegates?

  8. Beldar says:

    You really think New Hampshire influences South Carolina or Florida?

  9. Beldar says:
  10. Boyd says:

    I knew there was something I liked about you, Stephen. 🙂 As an aside, my brother (a UT alumnus) and I are going to the Holiday Bowl next week.

    Okay, back to business. Beldar, I certainly believe New Hampshire influences the immediately following primaries. That doesn’t mean there’s a lock on the winning candidate by any means, but there’s certainly influence.

    I feel very confident that the Republican nominee will be known months before the Republican convention is held.