POLITICS FEBRUARY 8, 2012
Another week, another set of primaries—and soon enough, undoubtedly, another cascade of speculations about the prospect of a brokered convention. Predictions of an unpredictable fight-to-the-finish have become an unfortunate refrain—not to say, cliché—of our presidential election campaigns.
Enough! I hate to be the one to have to break it to my fellow political junkies, but the truth must be told: Not only isn’t there going to be no brokered convention this year—there probably isn’t going to be a brokered convention ever again.
For starters, there’s a reason it hasn’t happened in either party since the advent of the modern nomination system in 1972. With virtually all delegates being selected in scheduled primaries and caucuses, there are no longer any blocs of uncommitted or “favorite-son,” or machine-controlled delegates who can prevent a front-runner from accumulating a majority well before the convention. All the great “smoke-filled room” conventions—including the classic 1920 GOP session in Chicago which gave America a Harding administration, and the 1924 Democratic convention that required 103 ballots—occurred when primaries were marginal events that mainly consisted in influencing the party bosses who controlled a sizable majority of delegates.
The only way to produce a “deliberative” convention now—barring some cataclysmic event like the death, disability, or disqualification of the putative nominee—is via an extended primary season in which multiple candidates remain viable to the bitter end. Sure, it could happen, but only theoretically. Candidates on the edge of elimination often say they will stay in the contest until the bitter end (as noted in my last column on Gingrich’s actual odds of victory), but they typically don’t, because they quickly realize they’ve lost the media attention and the financial donors that they need to win primaries and delegates in significant numbers.
One element of confusion that has entered the conversation this year is the supposed adoption of “proportionality” in Republican delegate allocation rules, which, it is argued, will make it harder for front-runners to lock down a majority of delegates. As Davidson College’s Josh Putnam has explained repeatedly, while the first-ever intervention in state delegate selection systems by the RNC this cycle is a big deal, the actual changes in these systems required in 2012 are actually pretty small: states holding binding primaries and caucuses prior to April 1 cannot award delegates according to statewide winner-take-all procedures. But they can award (and one state, South Carolina, has already awarded) delegates by congressional district winner-take-all rules, which are a long way from “proportional” representation at the convention. Moreover, after April 1, the rules are exactly the same as before. In short, there hasn’t been any procedural revolution that has made a “brokered convention” more likely.
Another largely false issue is the scenario whereby a “late entry” candidate jumps into the primaries and hoovers up delegates in sufficient numbers to deny Romney a majority. Primary filing deadlines have now passed for nearly all the primaries before mid-April, with new deadlines popping up every week. As the failure of Newt Gingrich to get on the ballot in Virginia has shown, even well-established candidates often struggle to meet complex filing conditions. There is nobody out there who is going to jump in late and have enough general support to leap the barriers to entry; all the “white knights” usually mentioned—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, etc.—didn’t run for very good reasons (Bush’s surname; Daniels’ “truce” insult to social conservatives; Christie’s various ideological heresies, from abortion to gun rights).
Finally, it’s worth examining the actual resistance to Mitt Romney’s nomination that is the essential premise for most of the “brokered convention” scenarios. Certainly he is not the ideal candidate for most conservative activists. But it is remarkable how few of them have failed to pledge allegiance to him if he does win the nomination. And he remains relatively popular among GOP voters: a NBC-Wall Street Journal survey of Republican voters taken well before the Florida primary, showing Gingrich leading Romney nationally, also showed Mitt with a better favorable/unfavorable ratio than Newt.
And even if you buy my learned TNR colleague Walter Shapiro’s idea that Gingrich could yet make a comeback and smite Romney in later primaries, that’s not the same as suggesting a “brokered convention” is likely. Should Newt somehow romp in February, March and April, then he might well romp all the way to the nomination, leaving Romney in the dust.
As still another TNR regular, Jonathan Bernstein, has noted, a “brokered convention” depends on “brokers.” Party leaders have a lot of ways to influence the selection of delegates in the primaries, but beyond that, their powers are limited. In the extremely unlikely event no winner heads to Tampa with a majority of delegates, we are looking not at a “brokered” convention, but a “deadlock” where the actual delegates, once their legal and moral commitments are discharged, can do what they want. “Brokering” is much too tame a metaphor for what would take place in that scenario. It would be a lot more like herding feral cats. Fortunately, it probably won't—no, it definitely won't—come to that.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.