Brokered Republican Convention: a Primer

By Chris Wilkerson, staff writer – March 28, 2012

As the presidential primary season wears on and the country’s attention span is tested, the possibility of a brokered Republican National Convention in Tampa is getting serious attention.
What is a brokered national convention? What could potentially happen there and what is the most likely outcome? What has happened at previous brokered national conventions? Let’s take a look.

What is a brokered national convention?
A political party’s national convention is the traditional event where the party’s leaders and delegates from across the country get together to nominate their candidate to run for President and Vice President of the United States.

During the primary season, candidates run campaigns in each state trying to gather as many delegates as they can to vote for them at the convention. Delegates are obligated to a specific candidate at the convention based on what the state’s voters decided.

What could happen?
If none of the Republican candidates reaches 1,144 delegates – a majority – before June 26, then the delegates at the convention still vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged during the primary. When that vote does not yield a winner, then the delegates are released to vote for whichever candidate they personally like in the next vote. [1]

Mitt Romney still could reach the number of delegates he needs to secure the nomination a couple of different ways. First, he could win most of the remaining primaries and caucuses (there are still about 20 states that need to vote). Second, any of the men still contending for the nomination could drop out of the race and the delegates who were committed to those candidates would then be free to vote for Romney at the convention. Third, the Republicans have 117 superdelegates attending the convention. They can vote for whomever they please.

At the convention, the superdelegates could push Romney ahead even if he does not gather the majority of the regular delegates.

If the delegates vote a second time and a majority winner still does not emerge, then they vote a third time, a fourth time and so on until somebody wins. In the meantime, deals are made behind the scenes. Deals may even happen behind the scenes to make sure the vote is for Romney before the convention begins.

Who benefits?
It might be easier to look at who does not benefit from a brokered national convention. Obviously, Romney does not benefit. He needs his opponents to drop out so he can begin spending money attacking President Barack Obama instead of his in-party rivals – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Most party leaders and conventional wisdom indicate that a brokered convention is a bad thing. [2] Four days of national television will be better spent as a giant scripted commercial for one candidate instead of a reality TV drama.

One of Romney’s rivals, Gingrich, sees it differently. In a chat with FoxNews’ Sean Hannity in late March, Gingrich said a brokered convention would be a great thing for the party. [3]

Romney is not exactly the most popular front-runner the party has ever seen. Gingrich, assuming Romney will be unable to get the delegates he needs before the convention, suggests the party forego a keynote speech on the first night of the convention and have a final debate instead. That would put the delegates in a position to understand exactly which candidates stood for what on the eve of their vote. “You can imagine a whole process that’s totally different from what we’ve ever seen,” Gingrich told Hannity.

He also had an answer for critics who argue that a longer campaign for the Republicans is a good thing for the president’s re-election bid.

Gingrich said the longer it takes the Republicans to decide, the less time Obama has to attack their candidate. “They’re going to raise the billion dollars but what if they don’t know who to attack? What if they don’t know exactly what they’re doing,” he asked.

So, a brokered convention could result in just about anybody getting the Republican Party’s nomination for President – sort to speak.

What has happened before?
It happened more frequently several decades ago, but the conventions do occasionally get brokered at the end. The last time it happened was in 1952 when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson. This was the last time a convention even needed an additional roll call. The last time a brokered convention produced a President was when Franklin D. Roosevelt grabbed his party’s nomination and then the White House in 1932.

Since then, there have been a few times when campaigns looked like they were headed toward a brokered convention, but a deal always has been worked out soon enough. Most recently, when Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were vying for the nomination in 2008, there were rumors that the convention might need to be brokered. Clinton wound up being Obama’s Secretary of State.

The worst case scenario is a repeat of the 1924 Democratic National Convention, also known as the Klanbake. A number of issues divided the Democratic Party in the early 1920s. In fact, most issues divided the party. Divisive issues ranged from religious issues and Prohibition to differences in culture: North and South, East and West. At the convention that year, there were debates about the Ku Klux Klan and some of the candidates aligned themselves with the Klan. The newspapers of the day called the convention a Klanbake. It took 103 ballots to settle on a winner: John W. Davis. Davis was not among the front-runners at the beginning of the process. The party was split for days between William Gibbs McAdoo, who was supported by the Klan, and Al Smith, who was a Catholic.

Out of the question?
At the beginning of the nomination campaign, President Obama’s poll numbers were low and he looked entirely beatable. His numbers have improved as the economy has sputtered back to life, so the Republicans will have to make a strong case against him.

Perhaps the thing the party faithful dislike most about the President is his health care reform plan. Since Romney passed a similar plan when he was the Governor of Massachusetts, the party has been slow to warm to him even though he leads in the delegates so far.

If the party wants someone other than Romney to challenge the President in the fall, then a brokered convention is their opportunity to buck the system and all rally behind a candidate.

Sources
[1] http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-03-24/republican-nominee-path/53748232/1

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/26/politics/gop-unpledged-delegates/

[3] http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2012/03/27/gingrich-gop-nominee-only-needs-60-days-defeat-obama

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