For some of us, the lure of a brokered convention has that irresistible mix of the fantastical and possible. It is like fantasy football, where permission is granted to obsess over the most unlikely scenarios with the gravest of intent.
Sure, a lot can happen at tonight’s debate. Maybe some clear frontrunner finally emerges. But just as the Olympics’ lure would be greatly diminished were it every year, the fact that the season on Brokered Convention speculation is only open for a relatively brief window every four years adds greatly to its appeal.
Opening Day comes when there is a crowded field running for president and no one can foresee an easy path for one candidate to amass the necessary delegates to win outright on the first ballot. Closing Day is when it’s clear that a candidate is going to win before the convention opens its doors.
In the last two cycles, the Republican candidate who was leading when 50 percent of the delegates have been selected has gone on to win. Once 75 percent of the delegates were selected later in the spring, opposition had withdrawn, clearing the field. But enough factors may collude to extend the Brokered Convention fantasy season all the way to Cleveland, where our dreams may come true and no one is able to secure victory on the first ballot. In fact, I haven’t thought a brokered convention has been this likely since when Ronald Reagan challenged Jerry Ford in 1976.
The first indicator that we may be headed to a real convention floor fight would be if a different candidate wins each of the first four contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. If that happens, no candidate would likely have enough strength to win outright and the electorate would be resisting the usual forces that narrow the field. Given the ability to raise money quickly on the Internet and the unlimited funding potential of Super PACs, any campaign that wins one of the first four states would likely have sufficient resources to push on.
But let’s step out of the hypothetical and start naming names. Ted Cruz should win Iowa easily. My bet is that a candidate who has devoted a great deal of campaign time to New Hampshire is likely to win the state; the victor will probably be Chris Christie, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. Then let’s say a desperate Donald Trump, having lost twice, comes back to win South Carolina. (I still don't think Trump is going to win any primaries but for the sake of this exercise, let’s give him South Carolina.) Then comes Nevada.
So imagine a scenario where Christie wins New Hampshire and Rubio wins Nevada. Or Rubio wins New Hampshire and Bush wins Nevada. Whatever the combination, the end result is four different candidates each with a win heading into March 1 “SEC” Primary. Those first four states only have a total of 133 delegates versus 565 selected on March 1.
In a world of four more or less equally strong (or weak) candidates, there is no reason that the big pie of March 1 delegates couldn't be split fairly equally. And that division of spoils could continue through Super Tuesday on March 15, which allots 361 delegates. The detailed rules governing delegate loyalty and rules are complicated and contradictory, but there’s a good rundown here by the blog FrontLoading.
So the four candidates battle it out all through the primaries and no one has a majority. Then it all comes down to that roll call for the first ballot in Cleveland. If no candidate gets 50 percent plus 1 of the delegates (1,236) on that first ballot, we’ve entered a world last seen in 1952 when Adlai Stevenson was picked at the Democratic Convention. In a media political industry that obsesses over every poll, the reality of a bona fide brokered convention would drive coverage to a UFO landing sort of frenzy.
While it is endlessly fascinating to speculate on the deals and obscure rules that could be activated, any outcome is likely to be drenched in disappointment and anger. No candidate picked in a brokered convention has won since FDR in 1932. Imagine the bitterness of Gore v. Bush amplified by multiple candidates over a few days in the tranquil setting of... Cleveland. It will most likely be a total bloodbath.
It’s impossible to read anything about the 2016 race without reference to the “Republican Establishment.” If multimillionaire Sen. Ted Cruz—the Ivy League-educated former Supreme Court clerk who worked for George W. Bush—is not part of the Establishment, there is no rationale definition of this illusionary institution. So, in the event of chaos in Cleveland, don’t expect the “Establishment” to restore order if only because there really is no such body. A floor fight will be a lot more Braveheart than Hamilton: brutal hand-to-hand combat with many bodies left on the field.
Will it happen? Usually in politics when we say, “This time it’s different,” it’s not. But you know, maybe this time it really will be different.
Stuart Stevens’s new novel, “The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear,” which is set at a brokered Republican convention, will be published in June by Knopf.