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Going for broke: could GOP convention elect nominee?

5 March 2012

By Julia Michaels, Legislative Research Director, University of Texas, Austin Office 

It’s the eve of Super Tuesday, the day on which the largest number of states holds their primary elections or caucuses. This year 10 states will have contests tomorrow, and given the high number of delegates at stake, the day could prove decisive for one lucky candidate. But what if it doesn’t? What if, come Wednesday morning, all four GOP candidates are still in the game and no clear frontrunner has emerged?

There is a possibility that the final four Republican presidential candidates will face a long, hard slog to the convention, if they choose to run that gauntlet together. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have shown no indication that they will drop out, and Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are trapped in a dead heat, battling tooth and nail for every last delegate. At this time, it’s unclear whether or not one candidate will be able to pick up enough delegates to win. This uncertainty has sparked speculation of a brokered convention among political journalists and pundits. But just what is a “brokered convention,” exactly?

A brokered convention is a last-ditch effort for a party to select its presidential nominee if none of the candidates have been able to garner enough delegates to secure the nomination. Put simply, it’s a free-for-all: delegates that have been pledged to a specific candidate are released from their commitments and are free to support whichever candidate they choose. Delegates form coalitions among themselves and lobby others to join their camp in support of a specific candidate. 

In order for a convention to become brokered, all attending delegates must first cast an initial vote to determine if one candidate will receive the majority of votes. If no candidate has a majority, the brokering begins. The vote may be repeated any number of times until one individual secures enough support. For the Republican contest this year, a total of 1,144 delegates are needed to win.

In addition, at a brokered convention the race is opened to other candidates, allowing any individual who would like to run for president to throw his (or her) hat into the ring. Some commentators have speculated that a prominent Republican politician, such as Jeb Bush or Sarah Palin, may try to join the race. But a surprise nominee would face an extraordinary challenge: after the initial excitement associated with upsetting the political apple cart has worn off, the newly-minted presidential nominee must raise money, hire campaign staff, and woo voters in only a few short months before the November general election — a tall order for even the most well-connected politician!

Believe it or not, the phenomenon of a previously-unknown candidate winning the party’s nomination has happened before. One oft-cited example from history is the 1924 Democratic National Convention, during which controversy over whether or not alcohol should remain prohibited led to a political boxing match. This fight so exhausted the official candidates that a political nobody, John W. Davis, was able to nab the nomination.  Unfortunately for Davis, he didn’t have enough time to campaign and lost to Calvin Coolidge. A similar situation occurred at the Republican National Convention in 1948, when New York Gov. John Dewey was selected in a brokered convention to run against Harry Truman — and lost.

It seems as though it would be unlikely for any nominee who emerges from such a process to actually win the presidency, but in fact this scenario has occurred too. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who led the nation during the Great Depression and World War II, survived the brokering ordeal at the 1932 Democratic National Convention and went on to win the presidency not only that year, but again in 1936, 1940, and 1944 as well (President Roosevelt has been the only president to be elected to four terms and is likely to be the last, as Congress amended the Constitution in 1951 to establish the now-familiar two-term limit for U.S. presidents). 

Although brokered conventions were once commonplace, they have become rare (the last one was in 1952). Why?  One reason is that over the past half-century, most primary elections have been so decisive that the convention itself is really just a formality. Running for president costs so much money that many candidates give up if they don’t think that they will gain enough delegates to win. The resulting “bandwagon” effect, when supporters of the candidates who dropped out throw their money and energy behind the declared front-runner, is usually sufficient to ensure victory.  Even in cases where the nomination was in doubt (such as the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), the existence of “superdelegates” has helped parties avoid the brokering process. The Democratic Party was the first party to set aside such delegates back in 1984. The preferences of superdelegates are unknown, so when their votes are added into the equation they usually push one candidate to the front of the pack.

If you live in a state with a primary election on Tuesday, or if your state still has not held a primary or caucus, take some time to learn more about the candidates. A complete list of 2012 presidential candidates can be found here, as well as voter registration information for each state.


Related tags: 2012-election, ballot-measures, blog, California, elections, Florida, Super-Tuesday

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