A brokered convention is a situation in United States politics in which there are not enough delegates won during the presidential primary and caucus elections for a single candidate to have a pre-existing majority, during the first official vote for a political party's presidential candidate at its nominating convention.
Once the first ballot, or vote, has occurred, and no candidate has a majority of the delegates' votes, the convention is then considered brokered; thereafter, the nomination is decided through a process of alternating political horse-trading, and additional re-votes. In this circumstance, all regular delegates (who, previously, were pledged to the candidate who had won their respective state's primary or caucus election) are "released," and are able to switch their allegiance to a different candidate before the next round of balloting. It is hoped that this 'freedom' will result in a re-vote resulting in a clear majority of delegates for one candidate.
Superdelegate votes are counted on the first ballot. Although the term "brokered convention" is sometimes used to refer to a convention where the outcome is decided by superdelegate votes rather than pledged delegates alone, this is not the original sense of the term. Like a brokered convention, the potentially decisive role played by superdelegates can often go against the popular vote from the primaries and caucuses.
Brokered conventions in history
Before the era of presidential primary elections, political party conventions were routinely brokered. The Democratic Party required two-thirds of delegates to choose a candidate, starting with the first Democratic National Convention in 1832, and then at every convention from 1844 until 1936. This made it far more likely to have a brokered convention, particularly when two strong factions existed. The most infamous example was at the 1924 Democratic National Convention (the Klanbake), where the divisions between Wets and Drys on Prohibition (and other issues) led to 102 ballots of deadlock between frontrunners Alfred E. Smith and William G. McAdoo before dark horse John W. Davis was chosen as a compromise candidate on the 103rd ballot. Adlai Stevenson (of the 1952 Democratic Party) and Thomas Dewey (of the 1948 Republican Party) were the most recent "brokered convention" presidential nominees. The last winning U.S. presidential nominee produced by a brokered convention was Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1932.
Conventions which were close to being brokered
Since 1952, there have been many years when brokered conventions were projected but did not come to pass:
- The Democratic Party's 1968 convention might have been brokered if Robert F. Kennedy had not been assassinated. He had won most of the primaries, but at the time, not enough delegates were selected by primaries to determine the presidential nominee. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had decided against running for a second term, still controlled most of the party machinery and used it in support of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who did not contest the primaries. If Kennedy had lived, the convention likely would have been divided between him and Humphrey's supporters.
- In 1976, the Republican primaries gave President Gerald Ford a slight lead in the popular vote and delegates entering the Republican National Convention but not enough delegates to secure the nomination. A brokered convention was predicted but Ford managed to receive the necessary support on the first ballot to edge Ronald Reagan. This is the last time a Republican presidential convention opened without the nominee having already been decided in the primaries.
- In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy, challenging incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, fell short in the primaries, but was still angling for delegates to switch over to him when he arrived at the Democratic convention in August. It was to no avail: Carter won handily on the first ballot, and Kennedy finally dropped out of the running a few hours later.
- In 1984, as a result of the Democratic primaries, former Vice President Walter Mondale was the clear frontrunner though he remained 40 delegates short of clinching the nomination. This had to be formalized at the convention, being the last time that any presidential convention opened without the nominee having already been decided in the primaries. However, a convention fight was unlikely as rival Gary Hart was lobbying for the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket, being resigned to the likely possibility that Mondale would receive the nomination. Mondale indeed received the overwhelming support of superdelegates on the first ballot to become the Democratic presidential candidate.
- In 1988, a brokered convention was predicted for the Democrats. There was initially no clear frontrunner since Gary Hart had withdrawn. Also, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson each won multiple primaries on Super Tuesday. Dukakis was named the frontrunner by the media, as he drew support from all sections of the nation while other candidates' support was largely limited to their native regions, so he maintained the momentum to secure the nomination in the next round of primaries.
2008 presidential election
For the Democrats a brokered convention was considered possible, as it was unclear for a time whether either of the two frontrunners, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, would be able to win a majority of pledged delegates before the convention. The only other candidate with pledged delegates was John Edwards, with 0.5% of the delegates.
The provisos given above do not consider the fact that Michigan and Florida's delegates were originally excluded, since they held their primaries too early in violation of party rules. However, through a compromise by the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, Michigan and Florida delegates were seated and received 0.5 votes per delegate. Clinton's Michigan campaign chair James Blanchard, argued that both states should have their full delegate slates restored; David Bonior who was now on Obama's team pointed out that these primaries were not proper contests - Clinton was the only presidential candidate that campaigned and therefore won most of the popular vote in these states - and that the DNC compromise was a concession on their part.
While falling behind Obama in the popular vote and delegates won through primaries and caucuses, Clinton initially enjoyed a large lead in superdelegates and maintained that they believed that she was the stronger candidate in the general election. Nonetheless, Obama criticized Clinton's rationale saying that the superdelegates' decisive role could be seen as undemocratic if it went against the popular vote. During the last week of primaries, DNC Chairman Howard Dean was also pressuring undecided superdelegates to commit to either remaining presidential candidate, in order to avert the potentially divisive contest carrying on in the summer. Clinton opposed Dean's initiative, because she planned to continue all the way to the convention where the undecided superdelegates would be her last chance to get the nomination, knowing that she could not overtake Obama's lead in the remaining primaries. With Obama taking North Carolina by double digits and almost winning the crucial blue-collar state of Indiana on Super Tuesday III, ensuring him the majority of delegates from the primaries, more and more superdelegates began committing to him leading up to the June 3 contests. As a result, on June 3, Obama was declared the presumptive nominee that evening, with pledged delegates from Montana and South Dakota. Clinton conceded on June 7, urging her supporters to support Obama in the general election, and so no brokered convention resulted for the Democrats in 2008.
For the Republicans, a brokered convention was also forecast because of the number of strong candidates and their different geographic bases. The number of "winner take all" states benefits candidates with strong regional support. In addition, the weakened power of President Bush to force candidates out of the race results in fewer levels of influence for them. With John McCain winning the majority of delegates on Super Tuesday and the subsequent withdrawal of his strongest challenger, Mitt Romney, the brokered convention was averted.
Brokered conventions today
Several factors encourage a clear and timely decision in the primary process.
First, candidates tend to get momentum as they go through the process because of the bandwagon effect. Thus, one or two candidates will be portrayed by the media to voters as the front runner(s) as a result of their placement in the first primaries and caucuses, and as also-ran candidates drop out, their supporters will tend to vote for the leaders. Theorists have identified two types of political momentum, piecemeal and all-at-once, with different impacts on front-runners and those right behind them.
Secondly, political parties wish to avoid the negative publicity from a brokered convention as well as to maximize the amount of time the nominee has to campaign for the presidency itself (there are barely two months between the major parties' conventions and Election Day).
Especially on account of the desire to foster party unity in the months leading up to Election Day, it is considered possible if not probable that any "brokering" that may be required for a future presidential convention will actually take place in the weeks and months leading up to the convention, once it becomes clear that no candidate will likely secure a majority of delegates without an agreement with one or more rivals. Such an agreement would likely commit the front runner to make some form of concession(s) in return, such as selecting the former rival as his/her vice presidential nominee.
Since delegates may become unbound if a candidate drops out, the third or fourth place GOP candidates may hold the ability to avert a 2012 GOP brokered convention should they choose to step down.
Brokered conventions in popular culture
The movie The Best Man depicts the brokered convention of an unnamed political party, with two candidates vying for the support of a previous President.
In the Hold Me in Paradise episode of Boardwalk Empire, "Nucky" Thompson is the de facto leader of the New Jersey Republican delegation during the 1920 Republican National Convention held in Chicago. In the episode, Nucky commits his delegation to Warren G. Harding in exchange for an unfavorable outcome for an instate rival.
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