As Ted Cruz continues to accumulate a sufficient number of delegates to give Donald Trump some competition, the Republicans are edging closer to Mitt Romney’s proposed solution to his party’s Donald Trump problem. Romney thinks Republicans need a brokered convention. Candidate John Kasich agrees. “What’s the big deal about that, other than it’s exciting?” Kasich told ABC’s This Week. “Think about how much education our kids are going to get about the way in which we pick a president … I think it will be very cool.”
In order for Romney and Kasich’s wish to come true, it would mean that no candidates received the necessary 1,237 delegates. The convention in Cleveland would require several rounds of voting, with a majority of delegates eventually free to vote for any candidate. Then, through wheeling-and-dealing, they would pick the nominee. Someone other than Trump—presumably.
But holding a brokered convention won’t be very easy in 2016. In contrast to the party convention in House of Cards—in which naming a vice president is left to be decided in a floor fight until Frank Underwood steps in with a Machiavellian plan to restore order—a real convention fight could easily produce the kind of chaos and disillusionment that Democrats experienced after their 1968 Chicago convention, when all hell broke loose over how to handle Vietnam in the party platform. The internal fighting was terribly damaging for the Democrats, and the party left the Windy City feeling that they needed to fundamentally reform the nomination process. Indeed, it was as a result of the 1968 convention that Democrats abandoned the process of selecting nominees in smoke-filled rooms.
It is true that, for many decades, the nation did pretty well with conventions that were dominated by party bosses. Brokered conventions could produce very good results, such as when it took the party four ballots in 1932 to select Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even so, the reporter H.L Menken wrote, “This convention” is “almost as vain and idiotic as a golf tournament or a disarmament conference.” And of course, there have been a number of conventions in which the parties were forced to go through several rounds of voting to determine the nominee: In 1912, for example, Woodrow Wilson was nominated after 46 ballots. The key to these contests were the national, state, and local party machines, which had the muscle to control and coordinate large blocs of delegate votes as the negotiations got underway.
Some of the brokered conventions were especially messy. In 1924, during their convention in New York City, the Democrats required a record 103 ballots before nominating John Davis as a compromise candidate and ending the bitter battles between former Secretary of Treasury William McAdoo and then New York Governor Al Smith. The convention was a messy affair with acrimonious debates over religion, race, and booze. Delegates had fist fights during a debate over the Ku Klux Klan. After observing these events, Will Rogers famously concluded: “I do not belong to any organized party. I am a Democrat.” Nevertheless, the experience in New York did not end the Democrats’ willingness to broker more outcomes. The party’s last brokered convention occurred in 1952, when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson won after three ballots.
Republicans have a long history with brokered conventions as well. Their last one took place in 1948, when New York Governor Thomas Dewey—considered a stiff by many of his colleagues—fended off challenges from California Governor Earl Warren and conservative Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Supporters of Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen made their case via showmanship, arranging for two brass bands to march on the floor while a “buxom and besweatered little drum-majorette” appeared at the podium, according to one reporter observing these chaotic events. Frustrated that Taft had failed to secure the nomination, conservatives and other Taft supporters refused to give up easily. The governor of Illinois, the publisher of the influential and conservative Chicago Tribune, was loyal to Robert McCormick and refused to turn over the state’s 56 votes until the third ballot.
Although Dewey insisted that there had been no backroom negotiations, he wasn’t telling the truth. The party bosses negotiated and argued until they reached an agreement. Dewey’s operatives—such as J. Russell Sprauge, the Republican National Committee person from Nassau County; Edwin Jaeckle, a Buffalo Republican; and Jaeckle’s campaign manager, Herbert Brownell—worked with figures like Senator Edward Martin from Pennsylvania, who controlled huge voting blocs in his state. Although Martin initially supported Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, he switched his support. The New York Herald Tribune speculated that 100,000 jobs would be going to the Keystone State—and that Martin’s main rival in Pennsylvania, Republican Governor James Duff, wouldn’t enjoy any of this political largesse.
There have been contested conventions since then—situations that entail last-minute scrambles to secure a majority of delegates in the weeks leading up to the convention. This happened in 1976, when Gerald Ford barely put back a challenge from Ronald Reagan, and again in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was able to prevent Ted Kennedy from winning the nomination. But the last brokered conventions—in 1948 and 1952—took place in an utterly different world.
A brokered convention today would look very different, and the result would likely be much more destructive than anything observers can imagine. The first and most important problem is that there is no longer anyone to actually broker the convention. The entire notion of a brokered convention depends on strong party bosses who have the ability to negotiate and make deals over where votes should go. That system no longer exists. It was shattered by the democratic forces that produced the current method, which has been used since the 1970s and which places the power with voters in primary and caucus states.
Without a broker, there would be fierce debates over the rules of the convention, which are subject to change. Procedures such as “Rule 40,” which requires candidates to receive a majority of delegates from eight states, and those governing the superdelegates would each come into contention as different factions attempted to influence the outcome. While party officials currently still have sway through fundraising, endorsements, and organizational support, there is no coordinated group of brokers who would be able to maintain control of the convention floor. And, thanks to a 2015 Republican National Committee rule change, superdelegates in the Republican Party don’t have as much numerical or institutional power as they do in the Democratic Party. Superdelegates, too, are bound to vote for the candidates their states voted for, and—especially in this volatile environment—they do not have the clout to control many delegates, most of whom will still feel very loyal to their candidates.
Today, not only are there no adults in the room, but a contemporary brokered convention will be televised—and tweeted, Snapchatted, Instagrammed, live-streamed, you name it. In the past, brokered conventions occurred in a relatively closed world. Although radio had made its way onto the convention floor by 1924, there was still a great deal of insulation for the party bosses. That was still true as late as 1952, when television was just starting to enter American homes. But that world is gone. Now, every discussion, rumor, and negotiation quickly enter the public realm, making negotiated deals difficult to sustain since activists are rapidly informed of decisions they don’t find acceptable. The kind of chaos that Democrats saw in 1968 could be replicated for the Republicans if every attempt to reach a deal were undercut by Internet leaks.
What’s more, a brokered convention would not sit well with many voters. The United States is no longer a country in which voters are comfortable allowing elites to make democratic decisions for them. Already, many Republicans have expressed anger about Romney’s speech. “They want to control the election because they don’t like Trump,” said one supporter of John Kasich, “And I understand that. But you have to let the people speak.” This sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing. The basis of the 1970s reforms was that, for better or worse, average voters should decide who ran for president. Party leaders could try to influence the process, but they should not be able to use conventions as a way to subvert the will of the people. This is why almost every state now has rules binding delegates’ votes to their state’s preference.
Romney’s appeal for a brokered convention is misplaced. Republicans would do much better to make a decision before the party converges on Cleveland to celebrate their accomplishments. If they don’t, and Romney’s strategy gains hold, the kinds of fighting seen in recent weeks could look mild compared with the forces that are unleashed on the convention floor. The party could end its process deeply bruised and battered, with many voters seeing the outcome as illegitimate. Romney should realize that if anyone stands to benefit from a brokered convention it would be Trump’s and Cruz’s insurgent coalitions that will have far more support than anyone else. As much as they might dislike the prospects of Trump winning the nomination, the party would be better advised to try to work this decision out, one way or another, at the ballot box.