It arrives every four years, so long as there is any chance of a competitive nominating process: the primaries could be inconclusive and we could have a Brokered Convention! With that phrase comes an array of more distinct fantasies, mostly from fictionalized or dimly remembered conventions of the past when multiple ballots or smoke-filled rooms full of deal-makers or wild gyrations on the floor between rival coalitions produced a dramatic outcome. It’s kind of important, however, to get real about “brokered conventions,” particularly in a year when the odds of it happening seem higher, as I discussed at the Washington Monthly with respect to the GOP:
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.
It’s probably a dream, however, caused by eating something strange just before bedtime, or maybe a pundit’s deadline that arrives too soon.