Um, What's a Brokered Convention?

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President Jimmy Carter accepts the Democratic nomination for president at the 1980 convention.

There comes a point in every presidential election battle where political pundits and fanatical West Wing-watchers alike hold their breaths, click their heels, and wish upon an earmark that this will be the year of the brokered convention.

As the surety of Mitt Romney’s arranged marriage to the Republican Party steadily diminishes while other suitors pull ahead, the plausibility of a tussle in Tampa come convention-time in August has grown. Herewith, a look at the peculiar institution of the nomination convention, why all the talking heads are in a tizzy about a brokered instead of a fixed one, and what the odds are of a televised royal rumble this summer.

What is a brokered convention?

In their current form, conventions are exercises in collective vanity, an excuse for the party’s settled nominee—who has already garnered enough delegates to make his competitors drop out—to get media exposure and some prime face-time with party big-wigs. But conventions were once substantive affairs, where candidates’ delegations came to wheel and deal for votes, hoping either to clinch the top slot on the ticket or at least ensure that their ideas make it onto the official party platform. A convention is "brokered" when none of the candidates has the requisite number of delegates to secure the nomination and competitors remain in the race. To settle on a nominee, the party goes through a series of re-votes and political horse trading until a candidate is chosen.

When was the last time there was a brokered convention?

The last time Americans saw a full-on major party brawl was when Teddy Kennedy decided to push his liberal economic vision at the 1980 New York City Democratic convention. Kennedy attempted to overcome sitting president Jimmy Carter’s nomination by fighting a rule change that would compel delegates to vote on their first ballot for the candidates to whom they had pledged their votes during the primaries. He lost this challenge, along with the nomination, but fought hard to have his pro-workers' rights views incorporated into the party platform. Kennedy’s impassioned speech to convention delegates led to 40 minutes of floor demonstration, proving once and for all the power of quivering, patrician timbre, and straight-up audacity.

Republicans saw their last contested convention battle in 1976, when the Gipper tried to punt Gerald Ford from the ticket after the incumbent failed to win enough delegates during the primaries to ensure a nomination. Prior to that, the last contested Republican convention came in 1960, when Nelson Rockefeller took on Richard Nixon. The two managed to hammer out the “Fifth Avenue Pact” in Rockefeller's swank New York apartment—Nixon agreed to push Rockefeller's more liberal views on the party platform in return for his dropping out of the race prior to the convention,

So why did the brokered conventions stop?

Because unlike reality-show producers, political party officials are not big fans of surprise endings and emotional, gut-wrenching public showdowns. But brokered conventions did not simply lumber into extinction because American democracy has mellowed with age. It’s shifts in the rules that have changed the way the nomination game is played in the modern era.

So, what are these rule changes?

The self-immolation of the Democratic Party at the 1968 Chicago convention was the beginning of the end for political-convention drama, in part because of the liberal doses of tear gas used on hundreds of protesters in Mayor Richard Daley’s imperial city. Many of them were young people protesting the party’s stance on the Vietnam War. The ultimate loss of the White House made party officials realize that Nazi comparisons from the convention floor hadn’t been the greatest for their image. In an effort to steady the boat, Democrats created the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, known more commonly as the McGovern Commission. The Commission devised a set of rules to democratize the makeup of Democratic delegates, bringing more women, minorities, and young people into the process. Procedural reforms that would limit vote interruptions and endless on-floor debate were also instated.

There was further reform two years later. Following the attempted Kennedy coup of 1980, the Dems established the Hunt Commission, which brought into existence the farcically named “Superdelegates.” Like Purell, Superdelegates have effectively sanitized the convention process because their votes aren’t tethered to primary results. Rather, these delegates, which made up about 20 percent of the convention delegates in 2008, can vote for the candidate of their choosing. This means that candidates can woo delegates at their leisure pre-convention, so by the time they step out under the bright lights, the only thing a nominee need worry about is whether his flag pin is on straight.

Wait, didn’t the Republican Party have any commissions on national convention rule changes?

The Republicans haven’t held grand inquisitions on the subject of convention rules and reform like the Democrats have, but there is no doubt that the nominating process has changed on the GOP side as well, in part because campaigns themselves are different. The onset of the televised campaign meant that everyday people became more interested in the political process, simply by virtue of knowing how the guy looked and comported himself. Participation in primaries rose significantly, enough that these battles at the state level came to be more than just a formality. As a result, the nominated delegates at the convention became more representative of the body politic.

What are the odds that the Republican convention will be contested this year?

This year’s Republican National Convention is set to have 2,286 delegates. In order for a candidate to secure the nomination, the chosen one (ironically, Newt Gingrich’s childhood nickname) will need to have 1,144 delegates under his belt. The weaker candidates in the pack usually drop out after Super Tuesday, which tends to clarify their odds. But if any of the guys who aren’t Romney—or Rick Santorum aided by the communion of saints and their super PAC, Restore the Middle Ages—decides to stay in until the convention, you could get a brokered convention. Considering that it takes an ego the size of Montana to run for president in the first place, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that banging a drum at the convention would be attractive to any of these guys. Here are some scenarios:

If Ron Paul were to suspend his campaign instead of dropping out, he would technically retain his delegates. He could act as Hillary Clinton did in 2008 and release his delegates, telling them to vote for the frontrunner, or he could decide that the best way to ensure that his libertarian views are reflected in the party platform is to stay all the way through the convention and make some waves. Newt’s particularly virulent strain of megalomania might mean that he wants to stay in the race for the long haul, though it’s more likely that backroom intimidation and threats will force him to drop out, especially if he loses his home state of Georgia. Rick Santorum, currently on a voter-endorsed mission from God, could decide to take his chances in Tampa if he remains strong in the polls.

But let’s face it: Brokered conventions are pretty much just a pipe dream. The party bosses will intervene, offering concessions, perhaps important posts—pretty much anything to avoid an ugly public display. Besides, we’ve all grown used to the glossy party-line comfort food that comes through our TV screens at each convention—enthused middle-aged delegates coated in streamers, smiling wives, and a candidate who’s tapered and ready for the general election.

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