If a majority of Republican primary voters fail to settle on a presidential nominee, what happens?
What is a brokered convention?It’s a throwback to another era in American politics, full of drama, deal-making, and chaos. Today, both the Democratic and Republican parties require presidential candidates to amass more than 50 percent of delegates, who pledge to vote for that candidate at the national convention. Those conventions are usually staged, predictable affairs. But if none of the candidates wins the support of an outright majority, the party’s nominee must be decided at the convention. The delegates are released from their pledges, and are free to vote for whomever they want. In the frantic horse-trading, or brokering, that follows, various factions seek to cobble together a majority of delegates for their favored candidates. Anyone can be nominated from the floor, meaning that new contenders could suddenly emerge.
Why the current talk about a brokered convention?Some Republicans and conservative activists are hoping for one, because they’re not sold on any of the potential nominees. Deeply committed conservatives believe Mitt Romney is too moderate to represent the party, while more moderate Republicans worry that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have records of extremism that will frighten off the independent voters whose support is vital to win the presidency. About 50 percent of Republican voters still say they’re unhappy with the candidates—and some in the party believe a brokered convention would prompt a dark horse candidate like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or even Sarah Palin to put himself or herself forward and unite the party. Among those who think a brokered convention is a distinct possibility when Republicans convene in Tampa on Aug. 27 are conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Sen. Jim DeMint, and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. “It’s possible,” says Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. “And I think on the whole, it might turn out to be a good thing.”
Has it ever happened before?Yes. Brokered conventions were common before the era of presidential primary elections, when party power brokers decided which nominee their delegates would support in the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms.” Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were all nominated in brokered conventions. The last brokered Republican convention was in 1948, when the three major rivals of front-runner Thomas E. Dewey—Robert Taft, Harold Stassen, and Arthur H. Vandenberg—stayed in the race until the convention, plotting to combine their votes to stop him from winning the nomination. But the three men could not decide which of them should be the unifying candidate, allowing Dewey to seal the nomination on the third ballot. Dewey went on to lose to Democrat Harry S. Truman later that year.
Why don’t they happen anymore?Both parties changed their rules to make brokered conventions far less likely. These changes came after the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was handed the nomination without winning a single primary. Violent rioting on the streets of Chicago ensued. A few years later, first the Democrats and then the Republicans adopted the system of primaries and caucuses that we have today, giving more power to rank-and-file voters and diminishing the importance of the convention. Even so, there have been several close calls. Gerald Ford only narrowly avoided a brokered convention in 1976, for example, by convincing uncommitted delegates to swing his way at the last moment; he wound up with 52 percent of delegates against lone rival Ronald Reagan’s 48 percent.
Could it happen this year?It’s possible, but only under a perfect storm of circumstances. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich would both have to remain in the race, and win some primaries in the Midwest and the South, while limiting Mitt Romney’s victories. The three candidates would then have to split the vote in large states like Texas and California, where hundreds of delegates are handed out proportionally. If all that happened, no candidate might wind up with a majority. Most analysts, however, think this scenario is unlikely.
Why do they think one Republican will emerge?A single candidate nearly always takes a significant lead well before the primaries are over, causing a “bandwagon effect”: The media crowns a presumptive nominee, and supporters and financial donors desert the also-rans. In addition, most party leaders will try very hard to prevent a brokered convention, fearing that it would put the party’s divisions squarely in the national spotlight two months before the presidential election. If a dark horse candidate got nominated, moreover, he or she would have less than 10 weeks to raise funds, put together a campaign team, and prepare for debates with a well-funded incumbent president whose organization has been preparing for this election for years. “Folks in the media and in political punditry like to talk about [it] because it’s like their dream come true,” says Chris Christie. “I don’t think it’s going to be happening in 2012.”
The longest conventionBrokered conventions produce great drama, but they often leave parties headed for defeat in November. The 1924 Democratic convention, which lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots, is perhaps the most extreme example. The party was deeply divided that year along religious, social, and geographical lines. Al Smith, a Catholic opponent of prohibition, was the liberal choice of Northeastern voters. William Gibbs McAdoo, a Protestant defender of Jim Crow, was preferred by Dixie Democrats. The convention was held in New York City during a heat wave, and was picketed by Irish and German immigrants, pro- and anti-temperance activists, and hooded, cross-burning Klan members. Local newspapers branded it “The Klanbake.” There was bitter infighting on and off the convention floor, and both leading candidates withdrew from contention after the 99th ballot, when it was clear neither could win. The party ended up selecting lawyer John Davis as a compromise candidate. But the damage was done. Davis ended up winning only 12 states, handing Calvin Coolidge a landslide re-election victory.