At this time of every cycle, the media begins to speculate about the possibility of a brokered convention. The speculation rarely goes much further than talking head and the blogosphere. Over the past fifty years, there have only been a handful of election cycles in which the ultimate result has been in doubt by the end of the primary process. The last time that a major party took more than one ballot to choose its nominee was the 1952 Democratic Convention. This time around, however, the leadership of the Republican Party is talking about the possibility of a brokered convention (although only behind closed doors). What is different with this cycle?
Brokered conventions used to be somewhat common before World War II. Until 1936, the Democratic Party required a two-thirds majority for nomination. In addition, up through 1968, less than one-third of the states had primaries. Most delegates were chosen in caucus states, and — in many states — the party leadership effectively controlled the delegate selection process. Rather than just merely influencing the nomination, the party leaders (most of the time) chose the nominee and how many ballots a convention went depended upon how long it took enough of the party leaders to agree on a candidate and direct their delegates to support that candidate.
Since 1968, both parties have moved to a reliance on binding primaries, and the delegate vote on the first ballot is determined not by the de facto leaders of the state party. but by actual voters. This move to binding primaries has also increased the cost of running for president creating a gradual winnowing process (with poor performances in early primaries translating into a lack of the donations needed to keep the campaign going). In the current system, the norm has been for the field to narrow down to one viable candidate even before that candidate has won enough delegates to get the nomination.
So what makes things different in 2016 that even the Republican Party leadership sees a need to think about the race going to the convention (which last happened in 1976). First is the number of candidates still running — fourteen. While some may still drop out before the convention, the Republicans have never had ten serious candidates still in the race when the Iowa caucus starts. The sheer number of candidates increases the possibility of a large number of candidates winning some delegates, and no candidate building a commanding lead.
The other thing that is different is Donald Trump. Unless something changes — Trump finally scaring away supporters or the actual elections showing that Trump’s support comes mostly from folks who do not vote in primaries — Trump is currently on track to win a substantial number of delegates. Given the fact that almost nobody who is supporting another candidate thinks that Trump is the second (or even fifth) best candidate in the field, it seems unlikely that he will gain enough support as other candidates withdraw to win the nomination.
Trump’s strength at drawing the angry voter disrupts the typical Republican dynamic. Typically, there is a strong candidate that gains about half of the fundamentalist vote. This year it is looking like Ted Cruz will be that candidate. However, the fundamentalists are rarely united enough (or a large enough faction) to deliver enough delegates to any given candidate. As a result that candidate loses to the mainstream candidate which is where this year’s problem is.
With two months to go to Iowa, none of the mainstream candidates seem to be gaining strength. The strongest mainstream candidate has a national polling average of only 14%, and only 12% in New Hampshire. The longer that the mainstream candidates fight for the mainstream slot, the more delegates will go to Trump and Cruz. While any projection at this time borders on fantasy, it is easy to spin a scenario in which Trump and Cruz combined have 60% or more of the delegates.
Even if none of the candidates has the delegates to win on the first ballot, I can’t see a brokered convention. The party leadership in both parties lost control of the delegate selection process a long time ago. On the Republican side, the candidates don’t even have veto power over their potential delegates. As the 2012 Ron Paul campaign showed, it is possible for activists to manipulate the delegate process to “steal” delegate slots away from the winning candidate. While party rules block such delegates from breaking their nominal pledges on the first ballot, this possibility means that by the second and third ballot the vote counts could shift dramatically. If the convention is still deadlocked, I am not sure that anybody has enough influence over the delegates to reliably deliver a block of delegates in support of a compromise (unless perhaps Cruz and the surviving mainstream candidate agree to a joint ticket in the model of Reagan-Bush or Kerry-Edwards). After that point, it becomes a case of different names being floated on the floor until one name inspires enough delegates to get a majority.
It is this last possibility that is probably causing the Republican leadership to scramble. There have been messy conventions before, but never a multi-ballot convention in the modern media age. The current Republican Party Rules do not make sense in a multi-ballot convention. If the nomination goes to a third or later ballot, the leadership wants the process to appear rational rather than chaotic. A structured process may not be clean and any multi-ballot convention will significantly harm the nominees chance of winning in November, but last second manipulation by the party may cause long term damage to party unity.