Like clockwork, bored political pundits trot out “brokered convention” scenarios every four years until they become moot when someone nails down the presidential nomination well before delegates gather to formalize the coronation. At this early point of the 2020 cycle, it’s natural to hear those old siren songs from a more interesting past when conventions actually decided something instead of serving as a four-day party infomercial as tightly scripted as any other TV drama. The fact that the last-multi-ballot convention occurred in 1952 (when Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson on the third ballot), and the last seriously contested nomination in 1976 (when Gerald Ford survived a close challenge from Ronald Reagan on the first ballot), is often forgotten. And yes, it’s fun to engage in reveries over the “smoke-filled rooms” that picked Warren Harding out of nowhere in 1920, the 103 ballots Democrats needed to find their doomed nominee (John W. Davis) in 1924, or the stampeding of Republican delegates by galleries chanting “We Want Willkie!” in 1940.
But aside from the question of who, exactly, would “broker” a “brokered convention” these days, fantasies of any sort of contested nomination at a convention run up against a fundamental change in the process that made primaries and caucuses ubiquitous and delegate selection less arbitrary and “bossed,” as I noted a few years back:
The main reason for this shift away from deliberative–or if you wish, “brokered”–conventions was the rise of a primary system that all but eliminated undecided delegates and favorite-son or stalking-horse candidacies. So it requires really, really special circumstances even to get within shouting distance of a convention where someone hasn’t locked up the nomination long before the balloons are inflated.
The big shift was in 1972, when virtually all states moved to primaries or voter-driven caucuses. (That’s also the same year that Democratic nominee George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at about 3:00 AM Eastern Time, which led both parties to move quickly to squelch virtually all spontaneity at later conventions, wherever possible).
For the most part, post-1972 nomination contests in both parties have ended relatively early, particularly in years when a candidate swept early caucuses and primaries. Occasionally there have been noisy but ultimately inconsequential efforts at conventions to overturn delegate allocations (e.g., an effort to “free” delegates committed to Jimmy Carter, whose approval ratings were abysmal, in 1980). But the most excitement we’ve seen over the possibility of a contested convention in many decades was the Republican competition of 2016, where an enormous field of potentially viable candidates, the early and chronic problems of original front-runner Jeb Bush, and the determination of party elites to block Donald Trump, all combined to create hopes and fears that no one would win a majority of delegates before the party gathered in Cleveland.
Despite some late hijinks involving dubious plans (similar to those Democrats entertained in 1980) to unbind Trump delegates, the convention itself was a Trump coronation (despite a spoilsport star turn by Ted Cruz). And this outcome probably led most observers to assume that despite their own vast 2020 candidate field, Democrats won’t have any trouble settling on a nominee well before their Milwaukee convention in July.
But there is a basic problem in assuming that the Republican delegate selection process in 2016 tells you anything about the Democratic process in 2020. Once he got rolling in 2016, Trump benefitted enormously from winner-take-all (usually by congressional district) delegate award rules. Democrats insist on strictly proportional delegate awards, which makes it much easier for candidates with limited but consistent support to hang around and hang around until late in the primary season hoping to catch fire (or to benefit from a front-runner’s calamities). That’s particularly true if they have a reliable source of money and/or an ideologically motivated national support base (like Bernie Sanders). So those who scoff at the possibility of a contested convention need to factor in several things: the size and strength of the field, the absence of a big-time front-runner, the likely split of delegates and a relatively front-loaded primary calendar that could make survivors of the early events quite durable.
It’s important to note that proportionality of delegate awards has its limits. There is a 15 percent minimum threshold for winning delegates at all, and in many congressional districts awarding delegates there really aren’t that many at stake to spread them around in strict proportion to the popular vote. But there are some counter-pressures that might encourage “losing” candidates to hold out, as well. As Nate Cohn notes, Democrats have “killed” superdelegates’ independence on first ballots. But if there are subsequent ballots, these ex officio delegates will spring back to life:
In 2020, Democrats have sought to tamp down the superdelegate hysteria by barring these leaders and officials — currently 765 of them — from casting votes on the initial ballot at the convention. But here’s the ultimate irony: They can still cast votes on successive ballots, so they could be more influential than ever if the Democratic primary devolves into a floor fight.
So sure, maybe history will hold true and only two candidates emerge from the earliest contests and one croaks the other by April. But for the first time in a long while a contested convention is an actual if still remote possibility. That in turn could influence candidate strategies in ways that are hard to anticipate. Despite its reputation for mild summer weather, it could get hot in Milwaukee in July of 2020.