Brokered Convention: Nothing To Worry About

by JayFromBrooklyn

Reportedly, the Republican National Committee has taken the uncharacteristic step of preparing for an eventuality. The bigwigs gathered together and discussed what to do if there is no nominee by the time the convention rolls around.

This gave rise to paranoid fear of a brokered convention, which apparently means that the RNC swoops in to anoint Jeb Bush as the nominee. Or something.

If this was the beginning of a plan to subvert the will of the voters and replace it with the will of the political elite, I assure you Donald Trump will not be the only one leaving the party. I pray that the report in The Post this morning was incorrect. If it is correct, every voter who is standing for change must know they are being betrayed. I won’t stand for it.?— Dr Ben Carson

After seeing this kind of misinformation, I decided to go through the different scenarios and explain why there’s nothing for Republicans to worry about.

  1. There can only be a brokered convention if nobody wins the primaries. If one candidate wins a majority of delegates, be it Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Jim Gilmore, that person will be nominated at the convention. There’s nothing the RNC can do to stop this.
  2. A floor fight doesn’t mean a brokered convention. If no one person wins the nomination in the primaries, the most likely outcome is still a first ballot win.
  3. The most likely scenario for a floor fight is as follows: The race ends up a close race between two candidates, but neither one has a majority because of unpledged delegates. This will end up like the 1976 Republican convention, and like the 2008 Democratic convention came close to. Those undecided delegates will be picking from those two candidates, one of whom will win on the first ballot. No brokered convention.
  4. Scenario 2 for a floor fight: Three candidates (or more) each win several primaries, which results in a split of delegates. This scenario is extremely unlikely, as I will detail below, but let’s go through it. Say Trump, Cruz and Rubio all win between 20–40% of delegates (could be anyone, but I’m just using those 3 as placeholders). We now have our theoretical brokered convention. What is most likely is two of these candidates merge campaigns- say Rubio agrees to run as Cruz’s VP, or Cruz as Trump’s. The merged campaign will win on the first ballot.
  5. Let’s go the next step: any such deal falls through. Each candidate insists on continuing their campaign. After the first three ballots all pledged delegates are no longer bound to vote for their candidate. Congratulations, we now have a brokered convention. But remember this: those delegates are picked by each campaign. Nobody can force them to vote for the establishment candidate. Nobody. Any compromise candidate will need the approval of several candidates holding the allegiance of a majority of delegates. For example, Rubio and Cruz may pick Mike Lee as a compromise.
  6. Finally, the will of the voters will not be thwarted. If voters pick a candidate, he will win. If they don’t, there is no will of the voters.

Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine

Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine

And now I’m going to explain why 3 (two top candidates) is more likely than 4 (delegates split between 3 or more). Since the ‘70s, our candidates are picked by the primaries and caucuses in each state. Some of them haven’t really been major contests, as one candidate had a clear lead from before the primaries (e.g. incumbents, or both parties’ 2000 contests).

Others have been more contested, but all of them had one person win a majority of delegates. There’s a conventional wisdom that this year’s deeper field makes it more likely that no one wins, but I looked through the different years and that’s not what I found. Every time there was a large number of candidates, even a large number who won primaries, (think GOP in 2012 & 2008, Dems in 2004, 1992, both parties in 1988), one candidate clearly took the lead early on and had the nomination in the bag before ¾ of delegates were awarded. In fact the only times it got further than that was when two strong candidates battled it out to the finish line, 2008 for the Democrats and 1976 for the Republicans. I don’t claim to know why in a multiple candidate race one surges ahead, but I don’t see why this election will be different. Republicans will have a candidate by May.

Guest Poster JayFromBrooklyn is an amateur political scientist and blogger who lives in Brooklyn. He maintains a Medium page and is active on Twitter.

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57 thoughts on “Brokered Convention: Nothing To Worry About

  1. I had this lined up for Linky Friday, but I’ll go ahead and put it here:

    Don’t fear the brokered convention or anything, but there’s a secret plan to install Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee.

    I think this post is pretty correct. The media just loves the idea of a brokered convention. Or even just a convention ballot that determines the nominee. So we’re going to hear about it even when the possibility is pretty remote. I do think it’s more likely here than it has been in my adult lifetime, but most likely things will straighten out one way or another. For good or for ill…

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    • To be fair, the media and political/history nerds like the idea of a brokered convention. I mean, a lot of alternate history games over at alternatehistory.com fall under the premise, “what if we kept conventions and thus, got weirder nominees.”

      I agree it’s unlikely to happen, especially since Trump’s base is largely people who don’t vote anymore. It’s basically Bernie’s problem, except with a different group.

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      • A lot depends on whether we kept the “congress keeps power” or the newer “president has a lot of power”.

        “congress keeps power” leads to oddball presidential candidates who have important backers.

        “president has a lot of power” leads to prime minister style candidates.

        Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an actual leader as the president of the United States? (arguably we had one trained as such with HW Bush.)

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  2. I largely agree. The bookered convention is more of a journalist/pundit fantasy than anything else because they think it is more exciting than an anointing ceremony. To be fair, they are probably correct about that.

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  3. I don’t think it’s a very important distinction between a brokered end-of-the-primaries, where coming down the home stretch it becomes clear or looks very plausible that primaries no longer can give someone a majority, and the VP nod is brokered at that point to resolve the primary – and a brokered convention, where that process extends literally into the convention hall. Extraordinary outcome in the modern context either way.

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  4. This was good, and I agree that political journalists are desperate for real news at conventions, which are basically pageants these days.

    Michael Barone has written on this in the past and notes that conventions were particularly important in the days before cheap long-distance telephone calls. Nowadays, it seems very likely that if the nomination is contested throughout the entire primary process, the answer will be reached (in private) prior to getting to Cleveland.

    http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/6491

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    • in the days before cheap long-distance telephone calls

      In other words all of human history prior to whenever precisely “long-distance telephone calls” got “cheap.”

      The progressive transformation of “political convention” from critical institution into quaint relic of bygone times parallels many other changes contributing to or necessitating the triumph of mass electoralism over republicanism. I won’t try to argue that the way we used to do it – when electioneering was in some parts of the U.S. a year-round full-time affair, generating turnout upwards of 90% among eligible voters in many states, upwards of 80% nationally, was uniformly good – not at all – but some things may have been lost, too. The “drama” that political junkies and the media daydream about touch on more than entertainment value. The excitement also has to do with distributed but not massified engagement and empowerment – although entertainment also seems to have been part of the political process even more in those days than in the present.

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      • although entertainment also seems to have been part of the political process even more in those days than in the present.

        “Watch the debates? Ugh, I might as well be watching a donkey pull a plow or something. Think I’ll binge Master of None on Netflix.”

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        • By the way, I’m really impressed with Master of None‘s ability to really hit you over the head with an idea, but still make it entertaining (e.g., the “feminism” episode). In that way, I guess it sort of is like Donald Trump.

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            • There are moments where he says things that are exactly what I would think in the situation, but would never actually say, and I’m just blown away (again, this sounds like Trump’s appeal for some!).

              For example, he and his friend are walking down the street talking about the weather mindlessly, the way people do, when they come to a lull and he says, only partly sarcastically, “You want to keep talking about the weather?”

              Or when he is asking out the bar tender he considers out of his league. They reach that awkward point in such interactions at which he’s reached the end of what he prepared himself to say, and she certainly doesn’t know what to say, so he just says, “I guess that’s the end of this interaction.”

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              • “We can be s**tty to people, it’s one of the great things about being alive now!”

                The tall, off-putting Eric Wareheim character could have also been played by Brian Posehn. I hope there’s more H. Jon Benjamin, I love that guy.

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  5. Here’s a piece of confusion that this post cleared up for me: I thought that scenarios #2/#3 was what everybody was talking about when they talked about a “brokered convention”. Thank you for that.

    Point of interest: Something very much like scenario #4 is what gave the Libertarian Party Bob Barr in 2008.

    It strikes me that a Floor Fight would be bad for the Republicans in the same way that 1976 was bad for the Republicans. It doesn’t strike me as likely that 2020 will be good for the Republicans in the way that 1980 was good for them… but maybe that depends on the person who gets to come in 2nd.

    New thing to worry about that just occurred to me: Donald Trump coming in 2nd Place in the Republican Primaries. Forever.

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    • Well the GOP going to a floor fight at all is a sign of if not sickness then a serious split between the establishment and their grass roots. It’s certainly not a positive sign for the party.

      But they basically signed a pact with the devil in 2009 and the devil has been rattling about the doors and windows for the last little while looking to collect.

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    • I’ve overestimated Donald stick-to-it-ness so far (though playing any game is more fun when you’re winning), but I still don’t think he’s going to make another pass at this endeavor once this nomination cycle is complete.

      Though to your point, someone will inevitably take his place. Otoh, we’ve had a Donald Trump coming in second place for a long time now. (e.g. Buchanan in ’92, & ’96)

      to riff off but slightly disagree with @north’s point in this same subthread, the deal with the devil was made between 2004-2006 when the various factions went all-in for Dubya’s election, and then to try to retain control of Congress by pushing the Administration’s lines on everything.

      It’s the disaster that was the Bush presidency (and really, the second term), that has created a power vacuum (maybe a power schism in this case) that everyone’s been fighting to fill since 2010.

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      • Eh, I’d say the real mistake was McCain picking Palin in ’08. If McCain had picked some reasonably conservative young-ish Senator, Governor, or Representative who would’ve done OK in the loss (Don’t ask me who – I’d need to double check who was in office), that guy could’ve spent the early Obama years being the face of the opposition and ran in 2012 and been the nominee instead of Mitt “I like to fire people” Romney.

        Once McCain and Romney left, that meant the establishment had no answer to, “we’ve run moderates two times in a row and lost both times”.

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      • You know what Kolohe, I’m going to agree with you here. I think 2004-2006 is probably the more accurate point to say the ink was signed on that dark contract.

        Palin was just a hail mary that sort of grew into that alluring political gap that really began tearing open between the GOP and their base from 2004-2006 on.

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      • What’s interesting, to me, is that while virtually everyone considered Bush’s second term a disaster, one that could destroy the Republican brand for some time, Republicans have actually done really well since ’08 at pretty much every level of government. I don’t know what it says about the Democrats that they cannot capitalize electorally on so much internal discord in the Republican party, a party that basically spent the last decade fucking shit up, but it can’t be good. At this point, the only thing the Republicans could do to not win elections is burn puppies alive in their campaign ads.

        No wait, I’m not even sure that would work, as it would be spun as an attack on the animal rights left, and win them votes.

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        • Last week or so, TNR and Kevin Drum had articles on a study that showed recessions caused by fiscal/banking crisis issues bring about significant upticks in right-wing politics. Much more so than ordinary recessions which can cause a government to swing left. The Great Depression was the exception to the rule in the United States.

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          • “recessions caused by fiscal/banking crisis issues bring about significant upticks in right-wing politics.”

            How many of these have there been since 1907? The post-WW2, pre-90s recessions were ‘natural’ turns in the business cycle, some made worse by secular trends in mechanization and globalization (i.e. both recessions on either side of 1980). The early 90s recession was caused partially by the S&L crisis, but that led to Clinton. The effects of stock market bubble collapse happened after Dubya came into office, and he only bucked the historic trends on the midterms because of war.

            The Great Recession landed right into Obama’s lap; yes, he wound up losing big in the midterms. But a good chunk of the reason he got in the first place, and the got outsized victories in many places, almost historic victories in others e.g. North Carolina & Indiana (and coattails in a lot of R+x congressional districts), was because of his conduct as a candidate during the September/October crisis itself.

            Obama has been historically bad at developing a center of power that does not need to have him personally in the middle of it at the helm. (one can put a lot of blame on D W-S, but not all of it, because Timmeh Kaine had the job before her during Obama’s tenure as President)

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        • How much of “the base” (for either party) consists of people who have certain gut feelings rather than a set of policy preferences?

          It seems to me that this number is growing rather than shrinking and that’s a recipe for a charismatic person to show up who inspires endorphin-making gut feelings rather than ACTH-making gut feelings.

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          • To be honest, Trump just sounds like the really conservative emails my aunt used to forward me (and pretty much everyone whose email address she had) all the time for most of the ’00s, until I finally asked her to stop. Hell, he sounds a lot like people I knew during the Clinton administration. I dunno if the electorate has changed in a way that makes Trump possible, because it seems like this has been a pretty big part of the conservative electorate for most of my adult life. That is, Trump’s just sayin’ shit out loud that the people who are now supporting him have been sayin’ to each other for a really long tmie. Instead, I suspect that what made Trump possible, as a candidate, is a combination of a vacuum within the party at the national level (lots of locally-appealing governors and congresspeople, not a lot of truly presidential types) and a media that couldn’t look away (because he was sellin’ papers, or clicks, or whatever), and that still can’t look away.

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            • Personally, I blame the trolls (You know, the ones who run a fact checking website?)… And I’ll blame them more when they get ahold of Clinton’s campaign and she wins. (they won’t be running that one, but a humorist can get in pretty deep).

              Because only trolls figure playing all sides AND the middle against each other makes for a good plan.

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            • I’m not old enough to know when they began but they were treated like useful and harmless idiots by the GOP leadership throughout the 90’s and gained strength in the Aughts when the GOP establishment utterly discredited itself under Bush minor. Now they’re on the verge of running the asylum and the establishment that unlocked the cell doors in the 90’s and catered to them in the aughts is hiding under their desk in the Warden’s office wondering what the hell happened.

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              • I’ve said this before – we’ve gone from people who don’t believe the bullshit they’re selling (Nixon and the like – dog whistling and the like) to people who believe half the bullshit they’re selling (Newt and most of the 90’s to early 00’s GOP like DeLay and Boehner) to people who actually believe the bullshit they’re selling.

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        • I don’t know what it says about the Democrats that they cannot capitalize electorally on so much internal discord in the Republican party

          Yeah, I’ve said the same thing myself. I think the belief or expectation was that the GOP and conservatism during the Bush years were such an abject failure that the alternative – vote Dem! – was sorta logically entailed.

          But as I’ve also said before, lots and lots of people really hate the Democratic party…

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          • The actual problem is, even if they’re pissed off at their own party, conservatives still turn out and vote in midterms, while liberals go in off in a corner and sulk if the Democrat’s don’t fix everything in 18 months.

            Throw in the fact that internal discord that moves the party right actually doesn’t hurt the party in large swathes of the nation (after all, the other guys still like non-white people and non-straight people), so there ya’ go.

            We are Two America’s – Presidential Election America and Mid-Term Election America, and it’s always been that way as midterm turnout has always sucked, it’s just that it wasn’t obvious that the new Democratic coalition was as effected because in recent midterm history, it was post-Lewinsky, so Clinton got a bump, post-9/11, so the results could be thrown out, in the middle of the Iraq mess, so even some conservatives voted for the DNC because Bush had f’d it up so bad.

            As a result, 2010 was the first ‘normal’ midterm since the last Republican wave, and that finished the job the GOP started in ’94 of wiping out the DNC in the South, with few exceptions.

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        • Chris:
          What’s interesting, to me, is that while virtually everyone considered Bush’s second term a disaster, one that could destroy the Republican brand for some time, Republicans have actually done really well since ’08 at pretty much every level of government. I don’t know what it says about the Democrats that they cannot capitalize electorally on so much internal discord in the Republican party, a party that basically spent the last decade fucking shit up, but it can’t be good. At this point, the only thing the Republicans could do to not win elections is burn puppies alive in their campaign ads.

          Except… Republicans have only done well if the default assumption is that Republicans lose. They lost the senate for eight year, and the presidency for at least that long. They’ve got the House of Representatives, but geography made that a foregone conclusion. The only place you could actually say they’ve been successful is at the state and local level.

          At that level, there probably is something about the democratic party that makes them unable to take advantage of republican failure. But the state-level GOP also didn’t necessarily spend the last decade fucking shit up, at least not to the same degree.

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    • Glad you enjoyed!

      I’m not as familiar with details of Libertarian party, but any system not based on primaries is more likely to end up in a floor fight.

      I agree that a floor fight isn’t great for Republicans. But people thought that the Hillary/Obama lengthy campaign would hurt Democrats in 2008 and it didn’t.

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      • I think if Hillary had mused about not endorsing Obama, or running as a third party, or something like that, the DNC would’ve been hurt. It also helped, that outside of the Iraq War vote, Hillary and Clinton’s policies were basically deciding between pepperoni on 6 1/2 slices of pizza and plain cheese on the other 5 1/2 or cheese on 6 1/2 slices and pepperoni on the other 5 1/2.

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        • Yes exactly. Hillary and Obama were almost identical in policy, the contest was one of themes. When Obama’s theme ran aground on the GOP’s total No strategy Hillary’s cynicism seemed prescient.

          Most importantly Hillary and Bill swallowed their pride and got into the traces for Obama after he won. The foundations of her current strength were laid down right then; the establishment was extremely grateful that she played ball.

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  6. Kolohe:
    I’ve overestimated Donald stick-to-it-ness so far[…]

    Gah! I keep seeing and hearing people use this word and it’s beginning to drive me insane. The word you’re all looking for is tenacity. I don’t know why people somehow forgot this word existed in the last few years, but for the love of all that’s holy, this absurdly awkward replacement for it has got to stop.

    (To be clear, Kolohe, I’m not trying to call you out specifically, this is the third time I’ve seen/heard it this week and I had to say something.)

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