Could Unlikely Presidential Candidates Bring Back Brokered Conventions? A Brief History of a Time Honored Tradition

Republican National Convention 1976, Image source: Wikimedia
Republican National Convention 1976, Image source: Wikimedia

Between billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump leading an insurgency within the Republican Party and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, doing the same among Democrats, talk has turned to the possibility of contested conventions for both parties this year.

Almost 90% of Republican insiders predict the GOP is heading for a brokered convention this summer in Cleveland, according to a recent Politico survey of operatives, activists and strategists in 10 key battleground states.

With 81% of the delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s camp as of this writing, a slim 51% majority of Democratic respondents aren’t as worried about a brokered convention according to that same Politico survey. But that’s not stopping the Sanders campaign from preparing for a brokered convention themselves. “When we arrive at the convention, it will be an open convention, likely with neither candidate having a majority of pledged delegates,” according to Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver.

Such conventions occur when no single candidate has secured a majority of delegates after the first vote for that party’s presidential candidate at its nominating convention.

As of this writing, Trump has 68.3% of the delegates needed to lock the 2016 Republican nomination after 32 states have held their primaries or caucuses. Clinton is at 81% with 18 Democratic contests left to be conducted. Should neither frontrunner secure the majority of delegates needed to clinch their respective nominations after the primaries have concluded (essentially 50%+1), the conventions then become open or contested conventions and the delegates then broker with each other to rally a majority around one candidate.

While this hasn’t happened in recent history due to the primary contests producing results that decidedly give one candidate a majority of delegates since the 1980’s, the truth is brokered conventions have a long history in American politics and were in fact quite routine since at least the 1850’s through the 1970’s.

In 1860, for example, the first and second ballots conducted at the Republican Party convention in Chicago produced a plurality of delegates for New York Senator William Seward. It wasn’t until the third ballot when former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln secured a majority of delegates to become the Republican nominee. (Seward went on to serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.)

In 1880, delegates at the Republican National Convention (again in Chicago) went through 35 ballots without either of the two frontrunners – former two-term President Ulysses S. Grant and former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine – getting a majority. It wasn’t until the 36th ballot when Blaine supporters defected and rallied around dark horse candidate James Garfield (a low profile Congress- man from Ohio) to push Garfield to a 52.8% majority.

At the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, neither Speaker of the House Champ Clark nor New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson had won a majority of delegates after the primaries. It took 46 ballots on the convention floor before Team Wilson finally talked enough delegates into coalescing behind the future two-term president.

The 1920 presidential primaries had six Republican candidates that year with California Senator Hiram Johnson winning only a 30.3% plurality of the popular vote. In fact, Ohio Senator Warren Harding finished in last place with just 4.5% of the popular vote, yet at the convention (in Chicago yet again) Harding emerged as the nominee de- spite his poor showing at the ballot box thanks to campaign manager Harry Daugherty’s back room dealings. Daugherty worked behind-the- scenes to paint Harding as a compromise candidate for hardline conservatives and moderates within the party (Daugherty went on to serve as Harding’s Attorney General).

Perhaps the most historic contested convention was the 1924 Democratic contest at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The primaries that year had decidedly voted to nominate former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo – winning nearly 60% of the popular vote! Still, going into the convention, there was a polarizing divide between supporters and opponents of Prohibition as well as interference from Ku Klux Klan members who openly endorsed McAdoo (an endorsement he refused to condemn) because they were opposed to McAdoo’s next closest opponent for the nomination – New York Governor Al Smith – due to Smith’s Roman Catholicism. Because of all the divisions, it took a record 103 ballots before the delegates in attendance finally settled on dark horse candidate John W. Davis, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, as a compromise. It was the longest continuously running convention in American political history, lasting a full 18 days.

Brokered conventions routinely occurred among both parties throughout the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. The 1968 presidential primaries resulted in the frontrunners being Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Democrats and California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republicans, but without either one locking a majority of dele- gates going into their conventions. The brokered conventions in Chicago and Miami, respectively, produced Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey (Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vice President) and Republican nominee Richard Nixon (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President).

Reagan nearly became the Republican nominee again in 1976 when he challenged sitting-President Gerald Ford for the party nomination. Ford narrowly eked out the win on the convention floor by a marginal vote of 52.6% to Reagan’s 47.4% which incidentally became the last contested convention for either party. Reagan wouldn’t finally become the GOP presidential nominee until 1980.

So brokered political conventions certainly aren’t without precedent. Indeed, they used to be the norm. Should it happen again for either or both parties in 2016, the pledged delegates going into the conventions are only obligated to vote for their predetermined candidate on the very first ballot. After that, much like NFL players after clearing waivers, they become “free agents” to then interact with others to determine which candidate to rally behind.

As history has demonstrated, resorting to a brokered convention hasn’t always hurt either party’s chances in the November general election either. But it should be interesting to see how the first potential contested convention(s) play out in the 21st century.

By John Giokaris

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