Will this be the year which makes pundits’ dreams come true? Republican presidential campaigns have begun to bet that way, reports Politico’s Ben Schreckinger. Unless the race narrows down sharply in the next couple of weeks, the delegates from the primaries may get a wide enough distribution that no candidate can win the nomination on the first ballot. After that … Katy bar the door:
As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz divide up the first primaries and center-right Republicans tear one another apart in a race to be the mainstream alternative, Republicans are waging a shadow primary for control of delegates in anticipation of what one senior party official called “the white whale of politics”: a contested national convention.
The endgame for the most sophisticated campaigns is an inconclusive first ballot leading to a free-for-all power struggle on the floor in Cleveland.
“This is going to be a convention like I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said veteran operative Barry Bennett, who managed Ben Carson’s campaign until December and is now advising Donald Trump. “It’s going to be contentious from Day One.”
The primaries and caucuses that dot the nominating calendar and whose results drive headlines will decide whom most delegates are bound to vote for on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention. Should the first ballot fail to produce a nominee, the outcome of the convention will depend on results of the parallel primary now underway for the hearts and minds of delegates.
I’m usually skeptical about these claims, in part because people predict this outcome in every non-incumbent presidential cycle. Occasionally it almost comes true — 1984 for Democrats, although it turned out to have little drama, and 1976 for Republicans, with more drama than the outcome deserved. The last truly brokered convention took place in 1952, when Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for the first of two losing efforts. The last president to have been nominated at a brokered convention was Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The expansion of the primary-voting system in the 20th century and the reliance on winner-take-all delegate allocations has all but eliminated the chances of brokered conventions.
This time might be different for Republicans, if only because there are still at least three viable candidates heading into March. However, the viability of those candidates comes in part because of the proportional allocation of states in the first six weeks of primaries and caucuses. After March 14th, GOP contests switch to winner-take-all — just in time for Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and North Carolina on the 15th. At that point, strong second-place and surprising third-place showings will no longer matter. Unless other candidates win states, the frontrunner will begin to far outpace the competition.
Besides, while a brokered convention sounds like a great idea to confound the establishment, the reality of a brokered convention is far different. It guarantees that the eventual nominee will have to prevail by navigating the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms of the GOP establishment (with vaping rather than cigars in 2016), and cutting the kind of deals that usually enrage the grassroots. Bloomberg’s Al Hunt reminds readers of how Gerald Ford managed to fend off Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign in that 1976 close call — by leveraging connections to defeat a rules fight:
Then, using the perquisites of the presidency — appointments, trips on Air Force One, small projects — Ford began to pick up delegates. John Sears, the brilliant Reagan campaign manager, realized that the challenger couldn’t win a war of attrition. With Senator Paul Laxalt, a Reagan confidant, he persuaded the Gipper to choose the liberal Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, as his running mate. This was announced three weeks before the convention opened. …
Ford, however, retained a small but clear advantage, so while conservatives focused on the platform, Sears’s next gambit was a proposed rules change that would have required any candidate to announce a running mate before being nominated. The idea was to force Ford to make a choice that might alienate one faction or the other and swing votes to Reagan.
Delegations from Mississippi to Illinois were in play on the rule-change vote, held on the second day of the convention. But a key was the pro-Ford Pennsylvania delegation. If Schweiker could persuade his fellow Pennsylvanians to support it, it would send a message across the Kansas City convention.
But Schweiker’s longtime friend, neighbor and former campaign manager was Lewis, head of the Ford delegation in the state. With carrots and sticks, he outworked his old pal and Pennsylvania voted overwhelmingly against the rule change. That sealed the nomination for Ford.
That history shows why fights over rules, not platform planks, are likely to be decisive in Cleveland if no Republican comes into the convention with a majority for the first time in 40 years.
In other words, a brokered convention is less likely to be a grand ol’ party and more about the Grand Old Party’s control.