A Brokered Convention Could Potentially Decide Our Next President, so What Is It?

Art by Steve Ponzo

A thorough explanation of the moving parts and the potentially wide-ranging ramifications.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics at all over the past six months you’ve undoubtedly heard the term, “brokered convention” being thrown around—likely “contested convention” as well. 

First off, there is a difference between a contested convention and a brokered convention.  Most would say they are two steps within the same process—although, since there are no more brokers, the terms are often used interchangeably.  Since most of the swirling rhetoric has funneled around the right, we’ll use the republican party as an example.  There are 2,472 total delegates up for grabs in republican primaries.  For a candidate to officially be named the party’s nominee, he/she must obtain a majority—which is 50% of the vote (1,237 delegates).  If this doesn’t occur, there will be a contested convention.  This process involves the delegates themselves casting a ballot, with the large majority of delegates bound by the laws of their state to select the candidate who earned the most votes in their district.  But, there are a series of unbound delegates in American Samoa, Colorado, Guam, North Dakota and Wyoming.  These are the wildcards during the first ballot.  It is possible for unbound delegates to sway the results enough for a candidate to win the nomination in the first ballot.  

And if that doesn’t happen…

Well, this is where things get really interesting and wildly complicated.  If upon completion of the first ballot no candidate has earned a majority of the vote, the convention is deemed “brokered.”  From this point on the entire enterprise is, essentially, a shit show—there’s really no other way to spin it.  After the first ballot many delegates are free from the democratic constraints of having to choose the candidate voters in their district selected.  To put it simply, they can change their vote.  The rules dictating the circumstances in which delegates can change their votes vary from state to state, but after the first ballot, things are bound to change dramatically and the more ballots that are drawn without a winner, the most delegates become unbound. 

If Rubio, Cruz and Kasich stay in the race for a few more months, a contested/brokered convention is a distinct possibility.  And due a brokered convention being a ferocious, free-for-all, many have posited the idea of Romney tossing himself in as a: D) none of the above option.  The speech he gave last week was essentially a plea for voters to play for the tie, to wait it out, to regroup and get ’em in overtime.  But there are hurdles for Romney to clear before he can peek his head in with a joyful and timely, “what about me guys?”

The RNC currently has a rule, Rule 40 which would prohibit Romney from tossing his well-coiffed tiara into the increasingly feral ring.  It states that for a candidate to enter a ballot during a contested or brokered convention he/she must have earned the majority of delegates in a minimum of eight states.  However, the RNC always meets a week prior to the convention to discuss the rules that will govern the event.  And since the GOP elite is clamoring to find a log to derail the Trump train, and is far from keen on Ted Cruz, that rule could easily be changed or abolished entirely.  It if looks like a contested convention is coming, be sure to check on what happens with Rule 40.  If that goes, it’s open-season.  House Speaker Paul Ryan has been another name tossed about in connection with a potential last-minute bid, and he too would need Rule 40 to be dissolved.    

But, wait, this all seems insane—has this ever happened?  

Well, yes dear fictional reader who I made up to pose a focused query in my direction, it has, a bunch of times actually.  The GOP convention of 1880 is our favorite.

In the 1880 Republican National Convention, James Garfield attended the contested and then brokered affair solely in support of Treasury Secretary John Sherman, who was running against, General Ulysses S. Grant -running for a third term- and Senator James Blaine.  After five days of voting and 28 ballots, there was no clear winner.  On day six, following a few more ballots without definitive results, Garfield, who genuinely had no intention of running, was tossed into the fray.  Two cycles later, on the 36th ballot, he won the nomination.  Moreover, Garfield went on to win the general election as well, so the fervor surrounding the convention and his late entry did not hurt the party in the end.  Times have changed a bit since 1880 though, candidates rarely tweeted back then.

So, if Rule 40 is done away with, and no candidate receives a majority of votes, Romney -or anyone else really- could be in the mix.

Now many have claimed a brokered convention subverts the democratic process—and in a way it does.  The first ballot is an mostly-accurate representation of the popular vote, but subsequent ballots are far more individualistic.  The delegates voting were democratically elected to their current positions so, in a way, their presence and power to make this decision was granted by the voting public in their district.  But the whole thing still feels, in a word: icky.  

If the convention is brokered, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, two candidates with nary a friend in Washington -and bus-loads of foes- would be in trouble.  So one may think the delegates will be swinging from trees like the Lost Boys chanting, RU-BI-O! RU-BI-O! but that may not be the case either.  The GOP elite have never been entirely sold on Rubio, and conversely -despite his election loss- they’ve always liked Romney.  There are far too many variables to determine where a tornado-ing enterprise like this could swirl, or if it will even occur, but the possibilities are far-reaching and potentially dicey. 

If the Lord of Republicia Reince Priebus (RNC Chairman, pictured above) thrusts his sword to the defiant sky and screams, “BROKERED!” an old fashioned, unhinged fracas will begin to unfurl in what will -undoubtedly- be a ferociously entertaining few days.  

Until then, we wait…


By Jesse Mechanic

Jesse Mechanic is the Editor-in-chief of The Overgrown.

Twitter-logo-6-12 @jmechanic




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