Brokered Convention: What Would It Mean for Republicans?
By Anthony Jerdine| Updated March 28, 2016
As former Right to Rise Super PAC chief Mike Murphy told the Weekly Standard after Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, things were different before there were political primaries. “You’d just pack a quart of liquor, a revolver, and go to the convention.” Those days are gone, but on the Republican side at least, they may be about to make a comeback.
As of Thursday, March 24, real estate mogul Donald Trump leads the much-thinned-out Republican pack with 739 delegates. Texas Senator Ted Cruz trails him by a significant margin, with 465, while Ohio Governor John Kasich has 143 (Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who dropped out earlier this month, has 166).
If the nomination simply went to the candidate with the largest tally, Trump’s task would be simple. But the Republican National Convention requires its nominee to win the majority of the party’s 2,472 delegates. The magic number, in other words, is 1,237. If no candidate hits that threshold in the convention’s first ballot, the party holds a dreaded “brokered” convention, leaving the door open for a candidate without an unassailable mandate to win the nomination.
What are the Odds?
Kasich, who won the state he governs outright and has picked up delegates here and there in states that award them proportionally, seems determined to stay in the race, despite his failure to pick up any delegates in Tuesday’s contests in Arizona, Utah and American Samoa. Assuming the three-man race continues, things could go awry for Trump in large states that award delegates proportionally – such as California on June 7 – and he could find himself short of the magic number come July 18.
Then what happens? Depending on the size of his shortfall, Trump could still become the nominee when the delegates cast their first ballot in Cleveland, since over 100 unbound and uncommitted delegates’ votes will be up for grabs. In Pennsylvania, for example, the primary is mostly cosmetic, and 54 of the state’s 71 delegates vote as they please. Then there are the 181 delegates that were awarded to candidates who have since dropped out: these are reassigned according to a bewildering array of state laws and rules.
What are the odds there’s still no nominee after the first ballot is cast? According to Paddy Power, the safer bet is that the first round yields a nominee, with odds of 1/3 (implied probability of 75%) as of Wednesday, compared to 9/5 for a second round (implied probability of 36%).
Brokered Conventions of Yesteryear
For the sake of argument, say that it does come to a second vote. Then the quarts come out, and the power brokers retreat to their smoke-filled rooms. Since the process was revamped after 1968, Republicans have not had a brokered convention. The last one was in 1952, when Eisenhower clinched the nomination despite trailing Ohio Senator Robert Taft in the initial tally.
From 1860 to 1948, nine Republican conventions came to multiple ballots. In six of those conventions, the eventual winner did not start off with the most delegates. In 1880, James Garfield came to Chicago without a single delegate and left with the nomination. The next year he moved into the White House.
Today’s hypothetical open convention would probably differ from these precedents. For example, describing these conventions as “brokered” evokes the political bosses who ran the show in the old days, but the bosses are mostly a thing of the past. The Party Establishment, as much as it is maligned and blamed for Republicans’ woes, has seen its power wane in recent years, so “open convention” – with its ring of chaos – is probably the better term.
If the first ballot does not yield a nominee, most of the delegates would then become “unbound” and free to vote as they pleased in the second ballot. At that point, a sizeable anti-Trump faction within the party would likely attempt to rally support around another candidate. That candidate could be Cruz, Kasich, or someone who did not even appear on the primary ballot.
Gary Emineth, an unbound delegate from North Dakota, speculated to CNBC on March 16, “It could introduce Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, or it could be the other candidates that have already been in the race and are now out of the race [such as] Mike Huckabee [or] Rick Santorum. All those people could eventually become candidates on the floor.”
That possibility remains as long as the RNC does not keep Rule 40b for the 2016 convention, requiring the nominee to win the majority of delegates in at least eight states. If the rule were kept, Trump would probably be the only eligible nominee. An important caveat: the votes in question are not based on results from primary contests, according to RNC Rules Committee member and North Dakota unbound delegate Curley Haugland, but the votes taken by delegates at the start of the convention. Those results are not necessarily one and the same.
What if the second ballot doesn’t yield a nominee? Then they hold a third, a fourth, a fifth and so on. Rule 40e states, “If no candidate shall have received such majority, the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of the states be called again and shall repeat the calling of the roll until a candidate shall have received a majority of the votes entitled to be cast in the convention.” In 1880 the Republicans held 36 rounds of voting before settling on Garfield, although that’s nothing compared to the 103 the Democrats held in 1924.
The People Speak
Barring total gridlock, the likely result of an open convention situation would be horse-trading among the de facto leaders of various party factions, leading some to question the democratic merits of the process as it’s currently structured. Party representatives have only fed into this line of criticism. Asked on CNBC why the GOP bothers to hold primaries at all if the party, rather than voters, decides the nominee, Haugland answered, “That’s a very good question.”
In the same vein, Diana Orrock, a Nevada delegate and Trump supporter, told CNBC Monday, “People are under the misconception that it’s the results of the caucus and the results of the primary that determines who becomes the nominee. In actuality, it’s the delegates at the national convention that are supposed to pick the nominee.”
Donald Trump has anticipated the possibility that he could lose the nomination, remarking to CNN on March 16, “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots.” Earlier that day, Cruz said something similar about the prospect of a brokered convention: “I think that would be an absolute disaster. I think the people would quite rightly revolt.” (See also: The Changing Demographics and the 2016 Elections.)
The Bottom Line
Since revamping the primary process after 1968, the Republicans have not held a brokered convention. That doesn’t make it impossible, however, and history shows that almost anything can happen once the second – or 36th – ballot is cast, from a comfortable win for the front-runner to a nomination for the zero-delegate also-ran. In other words, Kasich isn’t out of the race yet. Neither, for that matter, is Rubio. Or Romney.