I love presidential conventions because contrary to the popular perception, they matter. We would not have gotten a draft Calvin Coolidge movement that put him on the ticket against what the G.O.P. establishment wanted, were it not for the plotting of the party faithful against the smoke-filled rooms.
We would not have been so readily introduced to a lanky state (not yet U.S.) senator from Illinois were he not given the prime speaking spot at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. That man, Barack Obama, was elected senator and president in 2008, based, in large part, on that speech. We are all suffering for it.
This is why it pains me to explain that the possibility of a brokered convention is next to nil. In theory, a brokered convention would happen as soon as a candidate gets less than 1100 delegates necessary to win the nomination. Those delegates are then “released” and can vote for whomever they like. Usually the nominee is decided when one of two candidates gives up. 2012 with its four competing factions could, in theory, produce a situation where none of the four has enough delegates to win the nomination. (In all likelihood, one of the remaining four will use his delegates to extract some sort of promise or cabinet position from the one he tosses his delegates to.)
Alas there are several reasons why a brokered convention is extremely unlikely…so unlikely it is virtually guaranteed not to happen: the lack of ideological unity within the party, the end of regional factions, the cost of having a brokered convention, and the unwillingness of the major candidates currently in the running to step aside.
1. Lack of ideological cohesion. The Republican Party is very divided right now, perhaps the most divided it has ever been. There simply isn’t a single candidate that can unite the national security hawks, the libertarians, the social conservatives, and the fiscal conservatives. If there were, he would likely already be running. The Republican Party likes to be a big tent (though sometimes ends up a circus!), but there is no one ring leader that is the clear favorite. A party that can play host to both Sarah Palin and Scott Brown is one that has a lot of ideological division.
2. No “favored sons” anymore. In the days before the 17th Amendment, the U.S. senators sent as delegates to the conventions represented the interests of the state legislatures (and therefore the states) that sent them there. They made appeals for specific candidates from their own states. But, in the absence of the 17th Amendment, the senators represent the people (and the interests groups) that put them into office. They have loyalty to those that share their ideological views. In the olden days, Democrats would back Republicans and Republicans would back Democrats so long as they came from the same state. That doesn’t happen anymore.
3. The death of party bosses. There aren’t any smoke-filled rooms anymore and it isn’t only because we’ve banned smoking seemingly everywhere. On the Republican side, the era of big party machines is effectively over, replaced by single issue advocacy groups (pro-life, free trade, pro-free enterprise). On the Democrat side, the big party bosses have become professionalized in the labor unions who vote Democrat. Much of their death can be attributed to the election of 1924 when it took 103 ballots to decide who the Democrats would nominate. Some in their ranks favored Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic conservative, while others supported Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, a Klan supporter and Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. Unable to break the tie, the Democrats ultimately settled on the segregationist John W. Davis who went down for one of the largest defeats of modern American history when Calvin Coolidge mopped the floor with him. A brokered convention depends on brokers and the Tea Party movement of 2010 was about how little those “brokers” or party establishment types actually matter in deciding candidates or elections. The smoke filled rooms have been replaced by the pundit classes’ hot air.
4. The cost in earned media, party reputation.
Conventions are one of those rare times when political parties can speak directly to the American people. For Republicans, who often have to speak to their fellow Americans through a distorted media, this is a once every four years opportunity. A contentious primary effectively makes that message impossible to discern. All the everyday Americans will learn is that Republicans don’t have their act together.
What really animates calls for a brokered convention.
Those of us in the media would like nothing more than for there to be a brokered convention. It would keep the Republican race interesting and worth covering, but our wishes are, for reasons already stated, unlikely to be granted.
At base, conservatives fall in line, rather than in love. You shouldn’t be pleased in your politicians. These are men who are expected to serve and then leave. Any men who lusts after the sorts of power for months or years should raise suspicions.
But my suspicion is that the reason so many conservative elites are flirting with such false hopes is that they want to signal to others that at least they didn’t have a hand in the defeat that Obama may inflict upon the conservative movement were he to win re-election. They are simply betting the odds. Precious few modern presidents have been defeated in the modern era.