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A Brokered GOP Convention? Don't Bet on It

A Brokered GOP Convention? Don't Bet on It

By Sean Trende - December 13, 2011


Could the GOP nomination battle end up in a brokered convention? That's the hot question on pundits' minds these days. The correct answer is that there's a chance a brokered convention could occur, but it is exceedingly slim.

To understand why, we need a quick reminder on the Republican nomination system as it exists for 2012. Basically, the Republican National Committee looked enviously at the lengthy Democratic primary from 2008 -- which strengthened the Democrats by forcing candidates to conduct registration drives and set up infrastructure in all 50 states -- and decided that a longer primary system would benefit the GOP as well.

So, it decided to require primaries and caucuses held prior to April 1 to allocate delegates through a proportional representation system. To greatly oversimplify, a candidate who receives at least 25 percent of the vote in any given state will receive that same percentage of the delegates (some states have a 20 percent viability threshold, and some states will have “mini-races” in each congressional district). A total of 1,277 delegates will be awarded prior to April 1, so it is nearly impossible for a candidate to rack up the 1,145 delegates needed to win the nomination outright by the end of March.

The RNC also wanted to avoid a situation such as what occurred in 1976, when neither Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan had claimed a majority of the delegates by the time of the Republican National Convention, and the uncertainty surrounding the nomination process allowed Jimmy Carter to claim a double-digit lead in the polls. Therefore, after April 1, states are free to allocate their delegates as they choose. Most of them will do so via some variant of a winner-take-all system, although some (Rhode Island, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, New Mexico and South Dakota) still use a proportional system.

To further muddle things, some of the states holding caucuses in January and February don’t technically award their delegates until their state conventions later in the year, so they may still be able to use a winner-take-all system; how that will play out remains unclear. This is why, incidentally, Iowa hasn’t incurred a penalty for holding an early initial caucus, while the accelerated New Hampshire, Florida, and South Carolina primaries have resulted in the states forfeiting half of their delegates.

Below is a useful chart of the month that each state holds its primary/caucus, and how many delegates are up for grabs:

For now (Ohio is still toying with moving its primary date), 1,011 delegates are to be awarded in April, May and June. Of those, 776 are in states that have opted for some variant of the winner-take-all system (California, Connecticut, D.C., Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). With that in mind, let’s look at the four most commonly discussed scenarios for a brokered convention:

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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