How Likely Is a Brokered Convention?

How Likely Is a Brokered Convention?

By Sean Trende - February 15, 2012

Last week, I wrote that a path to a brokered convention was beginning to emerge in the Republican electorate. I was purposely vague as to how likely such an occurrence is. I called the path “very narrow” and said it is “beginning to emerge,” outlining the various contingencies required. But the truth is, at this point, the entire endeavor is pretty speculative; we won’t really know how viable the path is until after Super Tuesday.

But with polls now showing Rick Santorum running well in Michigan -- a key state if he really is going to dominate in the Midwest -- the topic is worth revisiting. Because if Santorum can win Michigan and Mitt Romney can take Arizona without knocking Newt Gingrich into irrelevance, then a brokered convention becomes much more likely.

I think the best way to gauge the likelihood of such an outcome is to compare this election to previous ones when pundits speculated that a brokered convention was likely, and then explore how this year is different. Salon’s Steve Kornacki provides a pretty good rundown of previous years here. Let’s walk through each one:

1976 Republicans: The problem that brokered convention proponents ran into that year was that there were effectively only two candidates in the race. As Kornacki notes, while there was some question as to whom the nominee would be, there wasn’t much doubt that either Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan would receive the nod. Again, the most serious roadblock for a brokered convention in 2012 is that Gingrich, Santorum and Romney all must remain viable. This is possible – again, just possible -- because for now they appear to be developing distinctive bases within the party.

1976 Democrats: The problem here was that Democrats were unsure how to play a prolonged primary race -- with the exception of Jimmy Carter. He won nine of the first 10 primaries, which gave him enough cushion to survive late runs by Frank Church and Jerry Brown. Had one of those candidates gotten in earlier, there really might have been a brokered convention. With all three candidates enjoying major wins early in the primary season this year, building such a cushion seems impossible.

1980 Republicans: There was a scenario for a brokered convention that year, with John Anderson playing a spoiler role. But this was never more than barely plausible, as Anderson and George H.W. Bush would inevitably compete for the same types of constituents -- neither could live while the other survived. Indeed, that split is probably what enabled Reagan to win Vermont on March 4, and Illinois on March 18. When Bush, rather than Anderson, won Connecticut on March 25, and then Reagan won Wisconsin a week later (again, benefiting from the Anderson/Bush split), Anderson’s Republican candidacy was effectively over. (He later ran as a third-party candidate, of course.)

This year is different because the two anti-Romneys are, at least in theory, not competing for the same voters. For the scenario to work, Santorum has to dominate the Midwest and Gingrich has to remain viable in the South.

1980 Democrats: Again, the problem was a two-man race. If the current Republican race devolves into this also, there won’t be a brokered convention.

1984/88 Democrats: I’ll take these together because they nicely illustrate what makes this year unique. The Jesse Jackson candidacy certainly made a brokered convention possible in each election. But in 1984, the super-delegates bailed out Walter Mondale. In 1988, party leaders also closed ranks around Michael Dukakis early; he won an outright majority of the vote in almost every post-Super Tuesday primary.

This year, the party insiders have largely closed ranks around Romney, but that hasn’t seemed to matter to the GOP rank-and-file. And there aren’t enough RNC members to change the outcome unless Romney is very close to winning the nomination to begin with.

But as a thought experiment, let’s assume that Jesse Jackson had run as strongly in 1984 as he eventually would in 1988. In his first go-round, Jackson didn’t win any primaries and received 3.2 million votes. In 1988, he won 11 primaries and caucuses, receiving nearly 7 million votes.

If Jackson had been sufficiently organized and funded in 1984, we would have had a scenario vaguely similar to what we have today: Gary Hart winning prototypical “New Democrats” (“Atari Democrats,” we called them), Mondale running strong with “traditional Democrats,” and Jackson running well with African-Americans. In that scenario, a brokered convention would have been likely. In the same vein, incidentally, if John Edwards had stayed in through Super Tuesday in 2008, there’s a decent possibility that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would have amassed a majority of the delegates ahead of the convention.

Similar distinctions can be drawn between today and the other years listed in Kornacki’s piece. Again, what makes this year interesting is that, for now, there are three candidates with potentially distinct bases competing for the prize. I still think that, eventually, this will winnow down to two. As I mentioned, we can’t rule out the possibility that Santorum’s strength is limited to small caucus states (especially once Romney’s spending gets going), and we can’t rule out the possibility that Gingrich’s strength in the South will eventually collapse. But we also can’t rule out the possibility that this split will continue.

Anyway, rather than make an outright prediction at this point, I thought it would be fun to allow readers to work through the primary states, and join in the speculation. The spreadsheet below enables you to input percentages for the various remaining GOP primary races and caucuses. First, click the "click to edit" button.  Then insert the percentages you think each candidate will win in columns C, D and E (it auto-calculates Ron Paul’s percentages). Some states also allocate delegates by congressional district, so just input the number of districts each candidate might win in that line.

The spreadsheet takes care of most of the proportionality rules (some states allocate CDs by proportional vote, but that would make this too cumbersome), the minimum thresholds, and the winner-take-all thresholds for states like New York (which are only proportional if no one wins a majority of the vote). At the end of the spreadsheet are 175 unallocated delegates, which are RNC members and delegates from states like Iowa that have yet to be allocated. You can allocate those as you see fit.

When you’re all done, type a 1 in the appropriate box at the top (cell C5), and the spreadsheet will tell you if you’ve set the stage for a brokered convention or not.

I did manage to sketch out a plausible deadlocked convention my first try through, but it was pretty close. I think you’ll find the same thing I did -- this is definitely possible, but not particularly likely. 


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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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