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A Brokered Convention Could Be Dangerous for GOP

A Brokered Convention Could Be Dangerous for GOP

By Sean Trende - February 17, 2012


For the past two weeks, I've commented on the increased possibility of a brokered Republican convention. This is a scenario where no candidate manages to claim a majority of the delegates, and the convention deadlocks.

At that point anything can happen. Candidates can combine forces, urging their delegates to support another candidate (usually in exchange for a vice presidential nod or cabinet appointment). Or the convention can turn to an outside candidate in an attempt to break the deadlock.

The latter possibility has caused some excitement among GOP’ers dissatisfied with the current field. After all, a brokered convention could end up drafting one of their favored candidates, such as Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan or Chris Christie. The idea is that this person could then unite the party in a way that none of the four current contenders has been able to.

This is certainly the upside of such a scenario. And one argument in particular supports it: The remaining field of candidates is clearly very weak. While it isn’t the weakest in my lifetime, it gives the 1996 Republican contenders and the 2004 Democratic group a run for their money.

So if you look at the 2012 field and conclude that none of them can defeat President Obama, then a brokered convention probably makes sense for Republicans. In other words, if you believe the GOP couldn’t do any worse than Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, or Newt Gingrich, then there’s little to be lost with a brokered convention.

I wouldn’t personally endorse that view, as I continue to believe that this election is about Obama, and that his re-election chances are quite weak regardless of his opponent. Reasonable minds can certainly disagree, but if you conclude that one of the remaining four could win, I think the upside of a brokered convention has to be weighed against these downsides:

1) A brokered convention is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. A brokered convention truly is a wild affair with unpredictable results. Sometimes you get a candidate who wins and becomes a president that most historians later consider “near great,” such as James K. Polk. Sometimes you get a candidate who wins and becomes a president like Benjamin Harrison, who did some good things and some not-so-good things. And sometimes you get Franklin Pierce, who probably made the Civil War inevitable. You might even get John W. Davis, who failed to excite his party and won just 28 percent of the vote.

Remember, “brokered” is a bit of a misnomer. Party brokers (whoever they are) may decide upon a particular alternative, but the delegates -- who will show up in Tampa largely believing that Gingrich, Paul, Romney or Santorum should be president -- may not be in any more of a mood to follow the party “establishment” than the GOP electorate as a whole is.

So while one may envision Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan emerging from the convention as the party’s standard-bearer, the possibility is real that the Gingrich and Santorum delegates could coalesce around someone like Sarah Palin. Now, for some Republicans that’s an attractive feature in the scenario. For others, it is the worst imaginable outcome. Regardless, it’s a real possibility.

2) “What It Takes,” 2012 edition. Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 presidential election is a classic, not just of election literature but of non-fiction in general. It was with a bit of sadness that I revisited it in preparation for this campaign, since this will likely be the final campaign to include any of the candidates profiled in the book (at least one major candidate from the book has played a part in every election from 1988 through 2012).

The theme of the book is simple: The candidates who win presidential races are the ones most willing to do what it takes to win; candidates who pull their punches fall by the wayside quickly. This is as true today as it was 24 years ago. Tim Pawlenty may be able to look himself in the mirror for not tearing down Romney early on, but it will never be a mirror in the presidential bathroom.

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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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