The Republican Party, we are told, is descending into utter chaos. The party’s bench of presidential talent, which once seemed so promising, has been completely overshadowed by a boorish celebrity who appeals only the country’s basest fears and prejudices. This candidate’s appeal, while modest, represents a faction large enough to potentially secure the nomination. Grumbling in the ranks has turned to panic, and Republican Party elders are developing contingency plans designed to prevent this threat to the GOP’s electoral prospects for the foreseeable future from gaining anymore traction. Inevitably, this dynamic yields stories about a looming brokered convention, a possibility that seems ever-present and yet never materializes. The potential for a nominating fight on the convention floor is probably overblown. What’s more, the party is not as imperiled by the long primary season as some fear.
In the immediate wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, his bid’s eulogizers settled on a misleading but prevalent explanation for his failure: The GOP cannot win national elections without more minority voters, and Romney probably lost his opportunity to appeal to them during the primary. The former presumption is almost certainly true, but the latter is not.
“Romney did move right for the primaries — the 2008 primaries, when he was running as the movement-conservative candidate,” Ramesh Ponnuru noted. “But he did not do much further flip-flopping, and in 2012 his rivals did not manage to pull him rightward.” He quoted an analysis conducted by the political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck that determined more voters saw Romney and not Obama closer to their ideological affiliation. A variety of factors led to Romney’s loss, but the long forgotten primary debates of 2011 and early 2012 were not among them.
Still, the myth persisted and the Republican National Committee determined that their best hope in 2016 was to limit the opportunities for the party’s next nominee to undermine his or her electability by veering to the right during the primaries. That meant reducing the number of sanctioned debates, moving up the convention into the early summer, and truncating the primary process so that it would be complete by early spring. “We’re going to have a nominee probably by the end of March or the beginning of April,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus declared in August. The best laid plans, as they say.
According to the Washington Post, the GOP is now preparing for a long primary season, and one that may result in the first brokered Republican convention since 1948. On Monday, party officials reportedly gathered for a dinner where the primary agenda item was Donald Trump, and preparing for the possibility of a floor fight in the event that no candidate receives the number of delegates necessary to secure the nomination. The RNC is smart to plan for this contingency, as they would be for a number of similarly unexpected outcomes. The disorder that would follow the first ballot, after the delegates bound to their candidate are released, sounds especially dramatic. And it makes for great copy, which is probably why we get the story of the brokered convention almost every presidential cycle.
By February of 2008, the Democrats were preparing for their first brokered convention since 1952, which led to a number of articles dissecting the arcane rituals practiced by the secretive order of Democratic “super delegates.” By February of 2012, a variety of prominent political analysts on the right were warning of the contested convention that would soon become the GOP’s “worst nightmare.” Though most conceded the prospect was unlikely, that didn’t prevent them from crafting fraught pieces brimming with dramatics about the nature of a floor fight. The regularity with which the brokered convention story arises is only eclipsed by the far off possibility of a 269-269 vote tie in the Electoral College, which is a story that you can bet the press will resurrect late next summer.
The prospects for a brokered convention are always very real, right up until the moment they aren’t. The notion that a GOP candidate will fail to secure the necessary 1,236 delegates by the time they gather in Cleveland is unlikely. The astute political analyst Sean Trende recently pegged the odds of the nomination coming down to a fight in Cleveland higher than any one candidate winning the nomination outright, but he still gauged it at a reasonably modest 25 percent chance. Further, failing to win the nomination in the primaries does not automatically yield a contested convention. It’s more likely that one candidate receives a plurality share of the delegates so that all that’s left to work out is the amicable process by which that candidate can secure a majority share.
And even this scenario is predicated on the presumption that the field of candidates does not sufficiently winnow down to a more reasonable number sooner rather than later. The lion’s share of delegates will be awarded in March and April, and virtually every candidate will be gunning to keep their campaigns alive long enough to test their luck in delegate-rich, winner-take-all contests later in the calendar. But February’s four contests – two primaries and two caucuses – will prove make-or-break for many campaigns. “South Carolina is really important,” Trende and his colleague David Byler recently observed. They noted that the Palmetto State, which (with the exception of 2012) has always voted for the GOP’s eventual nominee, awards delegates as winner-take-all by congressional district, “meaning that a candidate that runs well statewide could sweep the state’s delegates” and enjoy a substantial lead moving forward, presuming the South does not vote as a bloc on March 1.
It is true that the fractured nature of the GOP field could make this a long contest, but that does not mean the outcome will necessarily be in doubt. In the event that the race crystalizes into a Cruz/Rubio showdown, with Trump in a competitive third place, the race could take a long time to sort out, but the results would probably not shock observers. Only if Donald Trump manages to outperform expectation would a brokered convention be necessary, since the party’s establishment is likely to fight that prospect to the very bitterest of ends.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s prohibitive nominee will be unable to personalize the race and begin softening up the GOP’s eventual nominee ahead of the general election. The Clinton campaign that was at one point convinced Jeb Bush would walk away with the nomination is no longer so sure. The Democrats will do their best to tar the party as an intolerant one by citing the one-third of voters who appear drawn to Trump’s campaign. There is, however, little evidence to suggest the party as a whole will suffer reputational damage as a result of this tactic. Even now, while polls show voters disapprove of Trump, that disapproval does not extend to the GOP as a party or its other candidates.
The brokered convention theory makes for entertaining reporting, but it’s still an unlikely eventuality. Meanwhile, Republicans should not fear the long campaign. While it presents their party with some challenges, the same can be said for Democrats. There may come a day when panic is the appropriate response, but that day isn’t today.