Party's over.

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Deadlocked Convention, GOP Nightmare

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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It's time for a quick primer on what a disaster a deadlocked convention would be for the Republican Party -- a possibility that the combination of so many candidates and so much money has everyone speculating about. 

It isn't going to happen, of course. Regardless of how many candidates are around now, no more than three serious contenders are likely to be left after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada have voted (which should happen in February). The winnowing effect is strong. Normal candidates -- the ones who are running to win the nomination and who want a future in the party -- will drop out when their chances of winning become slim.

But just because a deadlocked convention is unlikely (and the party will do everything it can to avert one) doesn't mean it's impossible. 

What if, somehow, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul stick around to the end and manage to win about 15 percent of the delegates each, and if two of the other candidates have a close fight to the end?

Even then it wouldn't be a "brokered" convention. There are no brokers! It would just be deadlocked.

Back in the heyday of brokered conventions (well before the election reform after the 1968 elections), delegates were creatures of their state parties. A party boss, if a state had one, controlled the delegates, and could safely bargain for the best deal in return for their votes. If the state party was dominated by some interest group, or if it had multiple factions with different bosses, the system still worked: Someone had clout, and candidates could go to whoever had that power to try to make a deal.

This has all changed. Delegates don’t represent state parties at all anymore. Instead, they are chosen by the candidates, who have an incentive to recruit the most gung-ho loyalists they can. Or, sometimes, they’ll use the delegate slots as an inducement (or a reward) to persuade important party actors -- the people who hold sway over the nomination process -- to join them.

So what would happen in the case of a deadlocked convention, with no candidate having a majority of the delegates? Total, utter chaos is the likely answer.

The best hope might be that delegates stayed loyal to the candidate who brought them there -- so the candidates would then become brokers. More likely, however, each delegate would act independently. No one would have leverage over them. They would choose which party leader(s) to listen to -- a candidate, an issue group, Rush Limbaugh, whomever. They might form caucuses to try to increase their influence, perhaps based on some specific issue or issues or another common bond. Some might try to make individual deals, offering their vote in exchange for … who knows?

Now, if a leading candidate was close to the finish line at the end of the primaries, it’s possible he could keep the loyalty of all of his delegates and persuade a handful of the others to join him and avoid all this. But only the delegates themselves can make that happen. They are very much on their own.

So why aren't the Republicans losing sleep over such a prospect? Because whatever pressure could be applied to encourage a candidate to drop out and throw support to the frontrunner at the convention will be available to the party much earlier in the process: after Iowa, after New Hampshire, after half the delegates are chosen. For candidates, there’s nothing more to gain (and a lot to lose in party goodwill) by fighting on with no hope of winning -- at least, if the nomination is still closely contested. If someone is on his way to gaining a majority of delegates, then no one will care much which fringe candidates stay in.

At any rate. there are no brokers. Let's get our far-fetched scenarios right at least, and call it a deadlocked convention.

  1. It’s unlikely Cruz and Paul could win that many delegates (especially that many each) because Republican rules don’t produce many delegates for losing candidates in most states. And because Republicans don't have the proportional representation rules that Democrats insist on, even a close contest between two leading candidates is unlikely to leave them with (almost) equal delegate hauls. 

  2. In 2008, when the Democrats had a tight contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, all the other candidates rapidly dropped out. The no-chance candidates tend to stick around longer when a clear winner emerges early. That may account for why Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum stayed in the race so long in 2012 even though neither seriously threatened to win the nomination. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net