A Brokered Convention? Consider the Possibilities
By Peter Baker
As voters in Michigan head to the polls today, they have the chance to make history. Not because Republicans there may hand a victory to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who would be the nation's oldest president ever, or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who would be the first Mormon in the Oval Office. But because they may help propel the Republican race toward the first brokered convention in more than a half-century.
Yes, yes, we know. Every four years, the political class, including wise-acre journalists, gets all caught up in breathless speculation about the prospect of a brokered convention. After all, no presidential nomination has required more than a single ballot since 1952 and the prospect of actual drama seems like such a refreshing thought at conventions that in recent times have been sucked dry of any suspense whatsoever. And then every four years, the notion evaporates as modern political reality takes hold again.
In fact, there's still every reason to think the same will happen this year, that both parties will shuffle through their choices and effectively coalesce around a nominee by the time spring arrives. And yet, and yet -- it's hard not to ponder the possibilities, particularly on the Republican side, where the race is as unsettled as any in decades. If Romney wins his home state today, then the first three major contests will have produced three winners after former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's victory in Iowa and McCain's triumph in New Hampshire. Even if McCain wins today in Michigan and manages to keep the momentum rolling into South Carolina on Saturday, Rudy Giuliani waits in Florida, and if the former New York mayor wins there on Jan. 29, the Republicans could head into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 with no clear front-runner.
As our esteemed Takemaster Dan Balz writes on the front page of today's Washington Post, Feb. 5 offers an enormous basket of delegates and an equally sizable array of challenges to the candidates. (Balz, by the way, is way too keen a political observer to fall into the brokered convention frenzy, at least in today's story.) The Democrats will hold contests in 22 states on that day with 52 percent of pledged delegates at stake, while the Republicans will compete in 21 states with 41 percent of all delegates on the line. No one on the Republican side appears to have the money and staff to effectively compete across the board, and if none of the candidates arrives on Feb. 5 with a wave of momentum, it's hard to see any of them running the table.
Commentators have been anticipating and forecasting the possibilities for months. Way back in September, which feels like ancient times now, John B. Judis laid out a scenario in the New Republic that assumed Giuliani would still be strong, that Romney would win Iowa and New Hampshire and that former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson would be formidable in the South, none of which is true anymore. In Judis's hypothetical scenario, the front-runner after Feb. 5 would be Giuliani, with roughly one-third of the delegates chosen by then, followed by Thompson and Romney. "If there is no clear front-runner by then," he wrote, "the race will probably continue on into June and perhaps even up until the convention."
The conjecture heated up in December as Huckabee appeared likely to upend Romney's early-state strategy. Ralph Z. Hallow wrote in the Washington Times that Republicans were looking at the possibility of a contested convention. "As late as it is in this election cycle, no candidate in our party has moved enough to be assured of the nomination," he quoted Republican National Committee treasurer Timothy J. Morgan saying, "and the models I look at suggest a serious possibility we could have a brokered convention." David Freddoso at National Review has written repeatedly about the possibility in recent weeks. In December, he wrote that the calendar seemed to favor the odds of a fractured field. "Given this dynamic, and the lack of a clear front-runner at the moment, the odds of a brokered convention have never been better," he wrote.
The talk has only escalated as Iowa and New Hampshire voters weighed in. "None of our candidates seem to be able to break through," former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said on Fox News last week as voting began in the Granite State. "And if you look at the candidates, all have serious problems. I think, it's my prediction, I think we're headed for a brokered convention. I don't think we're going to get a nominee." Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) even postulated that a contested convention could be a useful thing for a Republican Party trying to find its way after President Bush. "I just think there's nothing unhealthy about the Republican Party having a serious discussion," he said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "We are at the end of the George W. Bush era. We are at the end of the Reagan era. We're at a point in time where we're about to start redefining ... the nature of the Republican Party in response to what the country needs."
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that a brokered convention is good news for political journalists and junkies but bad news for a party. While the opposition rallies around a single leader in the spring, your party is divided and wasting resources with internal fighting all the way until the end of summer. Brokered conventions were common for much of the country's history, of course. Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination after trailing on the first ballot in 1860; the Democratic candidate required 102 ballots to secure the nomination in 1924. But when television arrived on the scene, party poohbahs realized that pictures of discord were not helpful. The last conventions that went beyond a single ballot were the Republican gathering in 1948, which eventually nominated Thomas E. Dewey, and the Democratic meeting in 1952, which eventually nominated Adlai Stevenson. Neither one of those candidates won in the fall, and parties have managed to avoid multiballot nominations ever since. The closest in modern times came in 1976, when neither President Gerald R. Ford nor challenger Ronald Reagan arrived at the Republican convention with a majority of the delegates, but Ford rallied to win on the first ballot anyway.
The normal factors militating against a brokered convention themselves may be mitigated this year, at least on the Republican side. Normally a party's outgoing president or its top leadership can pressure trailing candidates to drop out after primaries have established a front-runner. But this time, some argue, neither Bush nor the party leadership has enough clout to necessarily force such an outcome, and since four of the five leading Republican candidates are not actually officeholders at the moment, there are fewer levers of influence on them.
It may fall instead on donors to play that role. Candidates with enough delegates to stay in the race but not much momentum could easily find themselves cut off and short of cash. It's easy to see Feb. 5 breaking one or more candidates financially and effectively forcing them to give up. But no Republican has so much money at this point that he can buy his way to the nomination.
So will there be a brokered convention? One thing we should have learned after last week's New Hampshire primary is that predictions this year are hazardous at best. Still, it would be interesting.
Web Politics Editor
January 15, 2008; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Morning Cheat Sheet , Primaries , The GOP
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