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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brokered Convention Redux

If, as appears very likely, Al Gore soon pours icy water on efforts to draft the Nobel Laureate for president, you can expect Gore enthusiasts to begin talking about a different scenario, in which a deadlocked Democratic Convention turns to the former vice president as a unity candidate. And just today, Kevin Drum revived blogopsheric talk that the many vulnerabilities of just about everyone in the Republican presidential field could produce a brokered convention there as well (John Judis made a more specific case for that possibility last month). So it’s as good a time as any to weigh in definitively on the possibility of an uncontrolled nominating convention (particularly on our side), and what that would mean.
First, let’s take the necessary look at history. The last multi-ballot convention was the Democratic event in 1952 (unless you count the multi-ballot Veep contest in 1956), long before the widespread emergence of primaries. The last convention when no candidate arrived without a clear majority of delegates was in 1976, when Gerald Ford needed a last-minute capture of the Mississippi Delegation to beat Ronald Reagan.
There have been two Democratic conventions in the modern era when extensive unhappiness with a putative nominee fed convention procedural fights aimed at unlocking committed delegates. In 1972, an Anybody-But-McGovern alliance of defeated candidates sought unsuccessfully to overturn California’s winner-take-all delegate selection rule, which would have seriously undermined McGovern’s convention majority. And in 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings fell into the teens (and after he lost virtually every late primary to Ted Kennedy), there was an unsuccessful effort to make all delegates free agents.
Since 1980, the closest thing we’ve seen to any real political drama in a nominating convention was in 1988, when Jesse Jackson secured a prime speaking slot in exchange for a robust endorsement of Mike Dukakis, and perhaps in 1996, when Bob Dole disclaimed the abortion language in his party’s platform.
So recent precedents don’t offer any evidence supporting a truly deliberative convention, and the question becomes: is there anything about the dynamics of this particular presidential cycle that could turn everything upside down?
There are, as it happens, three developments that could theoretically produce a situation in which no candidate has a stable majority going into the convention: (a) the radical front-loading and compression of the primary calendar, which under some scenarios could turn inconclusive early results into a total delegate count with no majority; (b) a subsequent lengthening of the period between delegate selection and the conventions, which increases the odds of a scandal or major gaffe striking the putative nominee and producing widespread “buyer’s remorse” prior to the formal nomination; and (c) the emergence of candidates (HRC and Obama among Democrats, and Giuliani and Romney among Republicans) whose financial resources are so large that they might be able to survive early setbacks and harvest enough delegates to keep the ultimate outcome in doubt, with a few breaks along the way.
So far I’ve been talking about both parties, but there are D and R variables that might affect prospects for a brokered convention. Republicans have gone less thoroughly towards the proportional delegate awards that might help strong second-place candidates keep hope alive, particularly in mega-events like the February 5 lollapalooza. And Democrats have Super-Delegates, the guaranteed spots for elected officials–more than a quarter of total delegates–who cannot be legally bound to candidates.
On this last point, Chris Bowers has plausibly argued that Super-Delegates are likely to put a kibosh on any late challenge to a Democratic front-runner. But it’s just as plausible that the Supers could tilt decisively against a front-runner who looks like a general election loser.
And all in all, I do think that the most likely of the unlikely scenarios for a brokered convention is one that involves a deeply wounded Democratic proto-nominee with a small majority of elected delegates whose weakness creates a revolt among Super-Delegates.
If that were to happen–and this is the one point I hope readers take away from this post–it’s important to understand that the infrastructure of national political conventions these days is completely incompatible with a return to a highly divisive, much less deliberative, event. Having worked in the script-and-speechwriting shops of the last five Democratic conventions, I can tell you that the whole show is a floating quadrennial operation that is turned over to the nominee and his or her staff, who exercise totalitarian control over every detail. The rules, platform, scheduling, and messaging functions of latter-day Conventions have long lost any independent status or power, as everything has been subjected to the relentless effort to utilize ever-shrinking media coverage to move general-election opinion polls a few points. I can’t even imagine how a convention could be planned and executed without a candidate in charge. And though I’m less familiar with Republican conventions, it’s reasonably clear they have become even more ruthlessly controlled (viz. the GOP’s decision in 2004 to kill most of the meaningless afternoon sessions that offered hundreds of elected officials and interest group poohbahs a brief moment of CSPAN coverage).
If it looks like either party is drifting towards a brokered convention in 2008, a lot of difficult decisions will have to be made to avoid total chaos. On the other hand, total chaos could at least boost those terrible convention television ratings, and maybe even make conventions matter again.

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