A Brokered GOP Convention? In Your Nightmares

A Brokered GOP Convention? In Your Nightmares

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

“Every single one I've spoken to,” Joe Scarborough told his audience on MSNBC, “is trying to figure out a way to get to a brokered convention.”  Otherwise, a Romney nomination  is “what the Republican establishment wants,” and would get.  Be careful what you wish for.

If spring is the season in which a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, as Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, then every fourth winter must be the season in which a political pundit’s fancy turns to brokered conventions.  Never mind that brokered conventions are rarer than love at first sight and every bit as disastrous.  When a wide-open primary starts and a consensus candidate fails to emerge in the first hours, we inevitably hear rampant speculation about – and even yearnings for – a dramatic convention that mysteriously produces just the right candidate.

Four years ago, the speculation involved both parties.  Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton won in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, while John Edwards threatened to win in the south.  In the GOP, Mike Huckabee surprised Mitt Romney in Iowa and John McCain won New Hampshire, which Romney followed by wins in Michigan and Nevada.  The media hummed with delight as the possibility of three-way fights opened the possibility of two brokered conventions in the same cycle.  Of course, the Republican primary then quickly coalesced around John McCain despite having four candidates (including Ron Paul) winning delegates, and the two-person fight in the Democratic Party made a brokered convention unnecessary.

This year, we have the same speculation – and in some cases, outspoken wishes among conservatives unhappy with this cycle’s choices.  Tea Party activists and other conservatives have bounced from one candidate to another to find an alternative to Mitt Romney, but have yet to settle on one.  Currently, Newt Gingrich has attracted their vote, but mostly for not being Mitt Romney and for offering the kind of combative style that provides emotional satisfaction.  On the issues, though, Gingrich isn’t that far off from Romney, and both men have problematic positions in their past on health care and climate change that mirror each other and represent heresies to the conservative activist base.

Supporting Gingrich amounts to a form of keep-away that denies Romney the nomination, Scarborough says.

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” recently explained the sudden rise of Gingrich as a placeholder for conservatives.  Supporting Gingrich amounts to a form of keep-away that denies Romney the nomination, Scarborough says he hears from “conservative movers and shakers in Washington” while splitting the vote enough to find a better nominee at the convention.   Perhaps if these conservative movers and shakers understood brokered conventions better, they would stop dreaming of them.  A brokered convention would be highly unlikely in the race we have now, and if no one got to a majority of pledged delegates before the convention, the outcomes would likely be worse than a weak candidate traditionally nominated.

First, it helps to remember that while brokered conventions were the norm in the 19th century, political reformers established the state primaries to put an end to political control by party bosses.  The primary system evolved from a series of political reforms from 1880-1915 that centered on having states rather than political parties control the ballots cast in elections.  The new system moved to secret ballots rather than open voting, as was the norm in the US prior to the “Australian ballot” reforms.   (Caucus states still use party-provided ballots and open voting, however.) These reforms had the explicit intent of breaking the power of party establishments, and succeeded because of widespread popular support to clean up the electoral system, according to author Alan Ware in his 2001 book, The American Direct Primary.

Since the advent of the modern primary system in the early part of the 20th century broke the power of party establishments, brokered conventions have been rare, and mostly unimpressive.  The last two brokered conventions in the US took place in 1948 and 1952, and produced as nominees two illustrious also-rans:  Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, respectively.  The last successful brokered convention came in 1932 when Democrats settled on Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the party, and eventually the nation, through the Great Depression and World War II – and that was a race Democrats would have had to try to lose after the economic spiral of the Herbert Hoover term.

It takes a special set of circumstances to get to a brokered convention, and this year’s race isn’t likely to provide them.  To keep one candidate from acquiring a majority of pledged delegates, brokered-convention fans generally need at least three candidates to win significant amounts of delegates.  The 1976 fight was an exception; Gerald Ford lacked a clear majority in a two-man race, but ended up winning on the first ballot anyway when Ronald Reagan made a couple of political missteps.  This race looks like it will become a two-person race, especially when the simultaneous primary dates begin and Mitt Romney’s organizational advantage takes effect.  In April and beyond, all of the primaries and caucuses are winner-take-all, and Romney’s large money advantage over Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul puts him in position to cinch a majority if Gingrich hasn’t precluded the possibility by that time.

It might be Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, or another establishment figure that chose not to run and get vetted in the first place.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that no one candidate has a majority of the delegates, and none manages to wangle a majority on the first ballot at the convention.  How does this benefit conservatives, who have fought the “establishment” that has pushed Romney for the nomination?  The nominating process will then fall into the hands of the Republican National Committee, comprised of state party chairs and other power brokers, where the Tea Party has little or no influence. The fantasy in this case will be that the assembled party bosses and delegates, many of whom are part of state-party establishments, will crown a completely new candidate.

Who would that candidate likely be?  It’s not going to be Sarah Palin or Herman Cain, who are the antithesis of this kind of back room wheeling and dealing and who aren’t necessarily trusted by the people negotiating the question. Assuming that it’s not one of the candidates who couldn’t close the deal in the primaries, it might be Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, or another establishment figure that chose not to run and get vetted in the first place.
Some of those choices might appeal to some Republicans, but consider the hole from which this nominee would start. Ten weeks from the election, the party would have a nominee for which no one had cast a ballot in a primary, who has raised no money, who has built no organization, and who has articulated no platform before getting drafted at the convention.  Put that up against the re-election campaign of Barack Obama and his $250-$300 million campaign fund and more from unions and the entertainment industry, and it would be a prescription for political suicide – and not just for the presidency, either.  The disarray would impact House and Senate races all around the country and risk not just the opportunity to take back control of the upper chamber, but also put control of the lower chamber up for grabs.

Conservatives dreaming of a brokered convention should consider the nightmare that would arise from such an outcome.  If they harbor anger at the Republican Party establishment, they should work to prevent putting the nomination into their hands.  Instead, the better option is to find the most acceptable candidate currently in the race – and perhaps focus on House and Senate races to make sure a Republican President adheres to the conservative agenda.