Anticipating a Year of Punditry: The Brokered Convention Meme

Ah, yes, it’s back again: the “brokered convention” meme, that favorite pundit fantasy, hauled out whenever there is a close presidential nomination contest (e.g., 2008 Democrats) or a shaky front-runner (2012 Republicans). Wouldn’t it be great fun if instead of an infomercial a major party convention became an accidentally deliberative event where everyone awaited a new ballot beginning with the ancient tribal cry: “Alabama, 35 votes….”

So far as I know, Taegan Goddard’s the first to raise this specter for 2016, and he actually makes a decent case that if it’s ever going to happen, the circumstances are favorable. There’s no real front-runner. There are enough candidates that the lesser-of-two-evils dynamic that produces an early winner may not kick in for a good while. And Super-PACs may make it possible for candidates whose campaigns would have starved to death in the past to survive later into the process.

Goddard could have added that changes in the calendar designed to end the nomination process earlier could backfire by reducing opportunities for a horrified party to avoid a “brokered convention.” And it’s also interesting that the closest thing to a Party Elite favorite, Jeb Bush, appears to be pursuing not a clinch-it-early strategy, but a win-it-in-the-late-innings approach.

Still, let’s review the record: there hasn’t been a convention which began with significant doubt about the identity of the nominee since the GOP event in 1976. The last multi-ballot convention was in 1952, when Democrats took three ballots to nominate Adlai Stevenson. The main reason for this shift away from deliberative–or if you wish, “brokered”–conventions was the rise of a primary system that all but eliminated undecided delegates and favorite-son or stalking-horse candidacies. So it requires really, really special circumstances even to get within shouting distance of a convention where someone hasn’t locked up the nomination long before the balloons are inflated. And even if that perfect storm occurs, in 2016 or some other year, the word “brokered” is probably off, as I noted in a TNR column on the subject in 2012:

As…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.

But we can dream, at least this far out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.