In the days following Mitt Romney’s overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, his route to the nomination looked relatively easy. However, that has changed dramatically over the course of the past month. Newt Gingrich wowed many South Carolina conservatives with fiery performances in two consecutive debates and won the South Carolina primary, while Rick Santorum locked up victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.
Now, there are rumors about another scenario — a scenario which presently seems far-fetched, but might become less so soon. Nate Silver wrote back in December that “Republicans are dangerously close to having none of their candidates be acceptable to both rank-and-file voters and the party establishment.” Indeed, a sizeable bloc of conservative primary voters remains unenthusiastic about the prospect of Romney as the party’s standard-bearer. If the fight continues for months, all of the candidates may become so damaged that they seem even more unappealing and/or unelectable. This raises the question: What if no candidate wins enough delegates in the primaries to secure the nomination?
According to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, many prominent conservatives in Washington are “trying to figure out a way to get to a brokered convention.”
A brokered convention occurs if nobody secures a majority of delegates on the first ballot at the national convention. At that point, all delegates are free to switch their allegiances, and horse-trading and further ballots ensue until someone gains a majority of delegates. This has not occurred since the Democratic National Convention of 1952. The last Republican brokered convention was in 1948. There have been more recent conventions — the 1976 Republican National Convention and the 1984 Democratic National Convention — that began without any candidate having won a majority of delegates, but in which the eventual nominee won enough delegates on the first ballot. Whether by coincidence or not, in all of these cases, the eventual nominee (Thomas Dewey in 1948, Adlai Stevenson in 1952, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Walter Mondale in 1984) lost in the general election. The same is true of several other contentious (but not brokered) conventions in recent memory. Hubert Humphrey, nominated at the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention, George McGovern, nominated by the Democrats at the contentious 1972 Convention, and Jimmy Carter — who had secured a majority of delegates before the 1980 Convention but had to fend off an unusual convention challenge from Ted Kennedy, who lobbied for a rules change to allow Carter delegates to switch to him — also all lost in the general election.
Many Republican voters have long wished that another candidate would enter the race. Several conservative favorites, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, declined to run, although some have continued to beg them to make a late entrance. A brokered convention could be the perfect opportunity for those who are not happy with Gingrich, Santorum, or Romney to make a final pitch for an outsider to enter and save the day. Interestingly, Daniels was tapped to give the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, giving Republicans a chance to see him perform before a national audience.
The Republican Party’s rules could also increase the likelihood of a brokered convention. According to Republican Party Rule 38, “No delegate or alternate delegate shall be bound by any attempt of any state or Congressional district to impose the unit rule.” This has been taken to mean that delegates are technically free agents, even on the first ballot. Under normal circumstances, a delegate who does not vote for the candidate to whom she is pledged might face considerable opprobrium. However, that might not be the case if there is a widespread embrace of an outside candidate. Another rules-related issue that might increase the likelihood of a contentious convention, if not a brokered convention, is the fact that some states (including Florida) have disregarded party rules by holding primaries before party rules permit and by declaring their primaries to be winner-take-all. Thus, a candidate who loses such states could demand that some or all of their delegates be disqualified (recall the controversy over the seating of delegates from Florida and Michigan in the 2008 Democratic campaign).
The likelihood of a brokered or chaotic convention may still be slim. However, given the volatility of the current race, and the number of unexpected twists and turns so far, it seems that nothing is impossible.
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