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What is a "Brokered Convention"?
FAQ: What is a "Brokered Convention"?Ron Paul and Mitt Romney battled to a near-tie in the Maine caucuses on Feb. 12, 2012. The press declared Romney the victor by 196 votes, but the caucuses were just a "beauty contest" -- the popular vote awarded no delegates yet. The actual delegate count won't be known for several weeks; our figures below are just estimates. The Ron Paul campaign claimed they still may win the delegate count victory, based on the town-by-town results and one snowed-out caucus in a Paul-favorable district. We'll follow the mainstream media estimate of delegates for Maine, and award a near-even split between Romney and Paul:
Romney has only won 4 out of 9 contests so far, and something of a pattern has emerged: Ron Paul heavily contests caucus states such as Maine; Rick Santorum heavily contests Christian conservative states such as Colorado; and Newt Gingrich heavily contests hard-core "red states" such as South Carolina. That pattern means that Romney has a fight on his hands in just about every upcoming state, and none of his three opponents seem likely to withdraw anytime soon.
So what happens? The pundits have started talking about a "brokered convention," which means that the primaries don't choose a nominee, so a nominee is selected at the Republican National Convention. We'll explain how a brokered convention differs from a normal convention -- with the caveat that a presidential brokered convention has not occurred since 1952! (although the 1976 GOP Convention came close, as did the 1988 Democratic Convention).
In a typical primary race, one candidate receives the majority of delegates, making it mathematically impossible for his opponents to win at the convention. That candidate arrives at the National Convention with victory assured; the delegate vote is a mere formality; and the convention focuses on the Vice Presidential announcement. Losing primary candidates might still have some power, because their delegates can vote in opposition, but that power is usually resolved by platform changes or a speaking slot, or some other accommodation. The losing candidate then has his delegates vote for the winner and the vote itself is a non-event.
The "magic number" this year is 1,144 delegates -- half of the total who will attend the Convention. Romney's pattern is to win, but not quite get to the 50% mark -- after Maine, he has about 47% of the delegates. When delegates go to the convention, they are committed to vote for the nominee for whom they were elected on the FIRST ballot. If the current pattern continues, Romney will get 47% on the first ballot -- not enough to win -- so the delegates are then free to vote for whomever they prefer on the second ballot and subsequent ballots. That is a "brokered convention" -- anyone can win, even someone who did not run in the primaries, because the delegates can vote for anyone they like.
The pundits breathlessly announce that Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Sarah Palin could win a brokered convention. That's technically true, but not very likely. We'll get to how that outcome might occur, but first a discussion of the more likely scenarios.
I attended a brokered convention in 2002: the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention which nominated Mitt Romney's opponent for the gubernatorial election. The Massachusetts Democratic caucuses that year did not produce a majority winner, and five candidates went to the convention with delegates; Shannon O'Brien held the lead but not a majority. The other four candidates' delegates duly voted for their preferred nominee on the first ballot, and then awaited instructions for what to do on the second ballot. Delegates are all loyal to their candidate -- yes, they are ALLOWED to vote for any candidate on subsequent ballots, but it's much more likely they will do as their preferred candidate suggests. My job at that convention -- working for Robert Reich, one of the four losing candidates -- was to run around the convention floor and tell our supporters what was Reich's decision about the second ballot, and later the third ballot. Behind the scenes, the campaign managers negotiated furiously -- but the delegates mostly just waited to do as they were asked. The delegates are all politically-savvy people, of course, and most had a clear first preference and a second preference -- but if Reich asked them to vote for one of the other four candidates, almost all of them would do so. Convention votes are public -- the delegates shout out their own name and their vote -- so any Reich delegate voting against Reich's preference would be well-known to other delegates -- and would be well-chastised by other delegates! In other words, the behind-the-scenes negotiations by the campaign really determine the outcome. At the 2002 convention, Shannon O'Brien won a majority on the third ballot, after many hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations. [She then lost in the general election to Mitt Romney!].
So what might happen in Tampa in 2012 if Romney does not have 50% on the first ballot? There will be four other candidates with delegates -- Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, and Jon Huntsman, who won two delegates before he withdrew. The five campaign managers will negotiate furiously -- the Romney campaign will try to offer enough to the others that they will agree to ask their delegates to vote for him. If Romney is close to 50%, he may only have to persuade one other campaign to support him, in order to reach 50% on the second ballot. If Romney is further from 50%, he may have to persuade two other campaigns to support him, which may go to a third ballot or beyond. Either one of those scenarios is likely -- behind-the-scenes negotiations; a deal between Romney and one or two of the other campaigns; the losing candidate asks his delegates to vote for Romney on the 2nd or 3rd ballot; and then Romney gets over 50%.
There are less likely -- but more interesting! -- scenarios too. Let's say that Romney comes to the convention with 40%, Gingrich with 31%, and Santorum with 20%. Then Gingrich and Santorum could make a deal without Romney -- say, a Santorum/Gingrich ticket or a Gingrich/Santorum ticket -- because together they exceed 50%.
The pundits breathlessly emote about a very unlikely scenario where a new candidate emerges as a compromise choice. Let's say no deal is made for the 2nd ballot and 3rd ballot -- the Convention gets deadlocked, with no end in sight. Perhaps behind-the-scenes the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns agree to ask their delegates to all vote for Sarah Palin, because Gingrich and Santorum can't agree on how to split the ticket, but CAN agree that Palin is better than Romney. Then Gov. Palin takes the floor and says, "Folks, this convention is deadlocked; vote for me instead," without having campaigned, Palin becomes the Republican nominee. Not very likely, but certainly exciting!