One of the popular discussions in political circles has been the prospect that this summer’s Republican Convention could end up being the first brokered convention since 1976. But I think there is a very real possibility that both parties’ conventions might end being brokered. Regardless of who emerged as the nominees in this case, the resulting political earthquake would reset American politics. Indeed, it would recreate the paradigm that both parties strove to leave in the past over 40 years ago, in the wake of the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining what the term “brokered convention”means. Put simply, it is one in which the party elites, the “bosses,” pick the nominees for President and Vice-President. This was once the norm, but liberalization of both parties primary and caucus rules -and especially the awarding of delegates based on the results – had made them a thing of the past. Over the past 40 years, the eventual nominees were able to garner a majority of delegates prior through the electoral process. While the party bosses still held significant power during the convention, it did not include the ability to change the popular choice for the Presidential nominee.
This year, there exists a very real possibility that no candidate in either party ends the primary season with a clear majority of delegates.
On the Republican side, there are still 6 candidates in the running. Of those, Ben Carson would seem most likely to drop out soon, but the other 5 have the funding and enough backing to continue on, at least until the March 1 primaries. In terms of delegates and convention politics, the longer the field remains this crowded, the longer the possibility that no candidate is able to cobble together 50.1% of the delegates. In fact, a scenario exists wherein the current frontrunner, Donald Trump, could exit the March 1 primaries with more state wins and higher percentage of the popular vote, but fewer delegates than the putative number 2 candidate, Ted Cruz. (And now, you understand why The Donald becomes unhinged at the mere mention of Cruz’ name). How? Cruz’ home state of Texas (where he holds a decided polling advantage) has a complicated two-step, primary and caucus method for picking delegates. Mobilizing the vote there requires an extensive and disciplined network, the type of which Cruz has demonstrated an ability to knit together and which Trump has not. Were Cruz to win Texas, a “winner take all” state and her 155 delegates, he could simply run a strong 2nd or 3rd in the remaining 15 states voting that day – and end up with more delegates.
Of course, we’ll know more after South Carolina votes. But to understand how crazy this is shaping up, you only need to realize that for all his braggadocio (and vaping by the press corps), Trump hasn’t even garnered 1/3 of the delegates awarded so far. And here’s the quirky part about primary elections: each state gets to choose how their delegates are divvied up. For the Republicans, South Carolina is a terrific example of how the winner of the popular vote can wind up with fewer delegates, especially with this many candidates. First, delegates are awarded to the winner in each Congressional district. There are 3 delegates available per district, awarded based on a “winner take all” basis. There are 16 “at-large” or “bonus” delegates, awarded to the winner of the popular vote – provided the winner exceeds 50% of the vote total. Finally there are 3 “RNC” delegates, bound to the winner of the popular vote, regardless of the percentage won. First, it’s extremely unlikely any candidate will win more than 50% of the popular vote, immediately putting those 16 at-large delegates into limbo. In fact, it seems likely that Trump will win Districts 1 and 7, while Cruz is strong in Districts 2, 3 and 4. District 5 is a Democratic stronghold and no Republican polls well there. District 6 is the heart of establishment politics in South Carolina and Jeb Bush’s redoubt.
So, while we’ll know more about how the race is shaping up, there’s a very strong probability that no candidate will emerge with so much as 40 total delegates. If current polling holds true, then the delegate race exiting South Carolina will look like this:
So, to recap: the likelihood is that even after March 1, no candidate will have even so much as 1/4 of the total delegates required to ensure the nomination, and the leader in popular vote could well be trailing in total delegates. This is despite that by then, 19 states with 554 delegates will have voted. This is how you get to a brokered convention.
Of course, there’s been a lot of talk and speculation regarding the possibility of a brokered Republican National Convention. To date, I haven’t heard anyone mention the possibility of a brokered Democratic National Convention. But the possibility exists, and the longer Bernie Sanders remains in the race, the greater the likelihood becomes. The reason has to do with the DNC’s “superdelegates.”
Unlike the potential Republican fiasco, the Democratic one would result from a direct divide between the party elders and the base. The elders (quite correctly, I think) do not believe that an avowed socialist can win the Presidency and thus have bet on Hillary Clinton as their standard bearer. Their primary process includes not only voted delegates, but also some 700 superdelegates. These are members of Congress and other party faithful who may vote for whomever they choose at the convention. Effectively, this means for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination outright, he needs to win the state delegates by a 701 vote margin.
Currently, Sanders holds a slight edge in awarded delegates, 36-32. However, to ensure the nomination, he needs to garner around 59% of the remaining at-large delegates. That’s a tall order. Partly because the Democrats have as many quirky state rules regarding how delegates are divvied up as their Republican counterparts, and partly because winning 59% of the electorate in any election is a tall order. Assuming Sanders does well in Nevada and better than expected in South Carolina, the possibility becomes much more likely that Sanders does wind up winning the popular vote among Democrats – but falls short of the delegate count required to secure the nomination.
If Bernie enters the convention with a lead in declared delegates but not enough to secure the nomination, you will have a brokered convention. The party elders will be faced with a grim choice: do they cast their ballots for Hillary, angering the rank-and-file members of their party? Or do they acquiesce to the popular vote and back Bernie? The floor fight might well be reminiscent of 1968, along with the attendant mayhem.
One thing is for certain. Regardless of whether these scenarios play out or not, this is an election cycle that won’t soon be forgotten. I expect the nastiness, vulgarity and personal attacks to intensify the longer the campaigns roll on without a clear victor. Strap in, it’s going to be a long ride until summer!