All I Want for Christmas…

… is a brokered convention.

I know it’s a lot to ask, Santa. The North Pole’s fascist state, where the jolly Supreme Leader rules over his elvish proletariat with an iron fist, has no need for chaotic second and third ballots. Indeed, the word “ballot” is probably as foreign to Norpolitans as “penguins” and “Hanukkah.” But here in America we have this messy thing called democracy. It’s disorderly and it’s inefficient, but we love it. And nothing more encapsulates the strange American electoral system than a brokered convention. Though it’s payable in July, Herr Klaus, it’s the only thing on my Christmas list.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a brokered convention results when no candidate in a primary receives the requisite number of delegates through primary voting. Since we’re focusing on the unstable Republican field instead of the predictable Democratic one, a good place to start would be my Republican Primary schedule post, which outlined how the 2,470 delegates to July’s Republican National Convention will be chosen. The 56 states and territories of the U.S. each get to send a certain number of delegates — determined by the complicated process described in that post — and a candidate needs to earn a majority, or 1,236 of the 2,470, to earn the party’s nomination. These delegates are initially chosen by the primary voters of each state and are usually bound to vote for the candidates their states voted for during the primaries. At the convention, that’s called the “first ballot.” If no candidate earns a majority by the end of the primaries, then we’ll have a brokered convention after this first ballot. Consequently, delegates at the convention are released to switch their votes to another candidate, and dramatic jockeying is attempted by the contenders to secure those votes on the subsequent “second ballot.” If the second ballot doesn’t produce a majority vote, there will be a third, fourth, and so on until one of them does. (The 1924 Democratic Convention needed 103 ballots, which might have killed PPFAmerica.) This is often called a “floor fight,” and it’s a nightmare scenario for a party, but a dream scenario for a political pundit.

These floor fights are rare. In fact, they haven’t happened since the advent of the modern primary system about halfway through the twentieth century. While we’ve had a handful of close calls, a brokered convention this July would be the first in three generations. Color me excited. But barring a midsummer Christmas miracle, how will we get one?

First, we need Trump to thread a needle for us. On one hand, we need him to hold on to much of his national support (a counterintuitive rooting interest for many of us). The key to a brokered convention is to have at least three viable candidates. The Obama-Clinton 2008 Democratic Primary, the closest primary fight we’ve seen in decades, only had two strong candidates. John Edwards ran second in Iowa and survived four primaries, but he suspended his campaign after a third consecutive third place showing and ultimately earned only 0.5 percent of total delegates. For that primary to have given us a brokered convention, we would have needed Obama and Clinton to each have earned between 49.5 and 50 percent of total delegates, almost an impossibility (especially considering the Democrats’ undemocratic superdelegate system could have massaged the numbers to “earn” a clear majority for one of the candidates). Thus, we clearly need at least three candidates to be competitive to get a brokered convention. (A nonviable candidate sticking around to win a home state as a “favorite son” would also be helpful, but extremely unlikely in modern politics.)

Trump, with his passionate supporters, few of whom would vote for someone else, is perfect for the role of one of the three candidates. This third candidate must have rabid supporters who won’t ditch their guy if he starts losing. Many Republican primaries come down to two candidates — an establishment candidate (Romney, McCain, Bush, Dole, Ford) and an insurgent (Santorum, Huckabee, McCain, Buchanan, Reagan as their respective counterparts). Voters are usually forced to pick one of the two sides, and one of them can easily earn a majority as a result. But if there’s an intransigent third group of voters backing someone who can peel, say, 20 percent of the total delegates, then our chances of a brokered convention drastically increase.

But on the other hand, he also can’t dominate too much too early. If Trump sweeps Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, his national numbers are so strong that taking the first three states might translate to a sweep of the country. The party will feel compelled to coalesce around the nominee and start working to control him as they careen toward the showdown with Hillary Clinton. In sum, this needle-threading by Trump is imperative.

Second, we also need no one else to emerge as the heavy favorite after the first three states, while Trump does well enough that he doesn’t implode after his losses. The most realistic scenario — and it really is within the realm of realism — is three states and three winners. Here is the most likely combination:

  1. Cruz continues his momentum in Iowa to win it. He’s been my pick to win it for months, so I like our chances here. Trump finishes second (also realistic, considering the polls) and spins it well. A top establishment candidate — and we’re really down to Rubio, Christie, and Bush at this point, with Kasich as a longshot — finishes better than expected, whether that’s an outright third, or fourth but close to Carson’s third place finish.
  2. The combination of Trump’s Iowa disappointment and the establishment candidate’s better-than-expected finish boosts that candidate to win New Hampshire as he siphons support from the other establishment candidates, who all disappoint. Whether it’s Rubio, Christie, or Bush, this is now the “establishment” candidate to Cruz’s “insurgency.” Thanks to the losing establishment candidates all losing support to the eventual winner before the primary, Trump doesn’t fall out of the top two. All other establishment candidates will then drop out as the party coalesces around the New Hampshire winner.
  3. Trump, up huge in South Carolina, loses much of his lead but edges out Cruz and the establishment candidate. Three states, three winners. Trump running second to either Cruz or Mr. Establishment might also work considering his national polling and the fact that the other two candidates didn’t sweep. He’d be the only candidate with three top two finishes, which isn’t bad.
  4. A southern-dominated Super Tuesday on March 1 sees Trump and Cruz closely finish 1-2 in some order across much of the south, keeping them in it, but the establishment candidate wins everywhere else. A three-way race is solidified.

There are other scenarios, to be sure. An establishment candidate might win New Hampshire even if Trump holds on in Iowa. (I’ve been trying to push Christie as a good value bet for a while, and it might be about to pay.) If Trump wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the dearly departed and Trump-hating Lindsey Graham holds sway in South Carolina and can rally its voters to help fellow hawk Rubio if Rubio showed admirably in the opening two states. If Carson can find a resurgence to finish second or a strong third in Iowa, he can also peel delegates from Trump and Cruz in South Carolina, allowing an establishment candidate to keep it close. Each of these scenarios, and others I didn’t list, are long shots, but if you combine them the brokered convention becomes even more of a possibility.

If we do get one, then the real fun begins. After the first ballot, would Trump and Cruz combine into some sort of antiestablishment ticket to beat the establishment candidate? Would the establishment candidate offer Cruz — whom the establishment abhors — the vice-presidency in exchange for his delegates and the clear majority? Or would a party elder emerge — Mitt Romney, in all likelihood — and pilfer enough delegates from all three candidate after the first couple ballots to win the nomination? Or something we can’t predict at all??

Exciting stuff! So please, Santa — help a blogger out. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good floor fight!


25 thoughts on “All I Want for Christmas…”

  1. […] As seen in Exhibit A, Trump is not going to achieve #1. That leaves us with 2 and 3, both of which are unfortunate scenarios for Trump. In the case of #3, the contested convention, you have to like the party’s ability to manipulate the process in Rubio’s favor. However, it’s way too soon to talk about a brokered convention more than I already have. […]


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