Let’s Not Worry About a Contested Convention Yet

The Republican Party has designed its nominating process in such a way as to avoid exactly this.

President Ronald Reagan is applauded at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 15, 1988
President Ronald Reagan is applauded at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 15, 1988 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

It’s every political junkie’s dream: a contested convention. When no American presidential candidate secures the support of a majority of the delegates ahead of the national convention, the assembly — normally stage-managed for television — will have to go through as many voting rounds as it takes to elect a nominee. Imagine the theater!

Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened in over half a century. And for good reason.

The last time the Democrats needed to “broker” their convention was in 1952. The last time the Republicans had one was in 1948. At both times, the parties went on to lose the general election. The spectacle of a party struggling to find a presidential candidate doesn’t inspire much confidence in voters that they’ve made the right choice.


Reporters like to imagine scenarios for a contested convention every four years.

Every four years, their scenarios turn out to be wrong.

The argument this time (see Bloomberg Politics for a good example) is that both Donald Trump, a bombastic property tycoon, and Ted Cruz, a firebrand senator from Texas, are despised by the Republican Party establishment and would almost certainly lose a general election against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. If a third, more establishment-friendly candidate, like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, stayed in the race, neither may get the support needed to win the nomination outright and party actors would need to broker the convention in favor of whomever they deem to be the most electable.

There is something to the theory and it’s taken seriously enough by Trump and Ben Carson, another outsider candidate, to warn that they might stage independent bids for the presidency if the Republican Party tried to force them out.

But there are more persuasive arguments against it.

The party decides

The first is that while the days of party bosses and brokered conventions may be gone, there is still such a thing as “the” Republican Party: the institution, including elected, local and state party officials, as well as the looser coalition of donors, insiders and affiliated interest and lobby groups surrounding it, who collectively nudge the primary electorate in the right direction.

The political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller argued in 2008 that they are really the ones who decide who is going to be the nominee. Not in smokey rooms behind closed doors, but in myriad subtle ways: They write caucus and primary rules (including crucial ballot requirements), appoint superdelegates, schedules debates and have hundreds of millions of dollars to spent on advertising.

On the Democratic side, this whole constellation has — unlike eight years ago — arrayed in Hillary Clinton’s favor.

On the Republican side, it’s proving more difficult this year. But there is still a long way to go.

Surviving the primaries

Cruz and Trump may be ahead in the polls, but much can change between now and February, when Iowa and New Hampshire kick off the voting contest.

Trump may already be plotting his exit, complaining that the Republican Party has been treating him “unfairly”. For a man who claims to always win, this may be the only way he can justify terminating a doomed candidacy.

As for Cruz, we expect he will win the caucuses in Iowa and some, possibly many, of the Southern primaries in early March. But after that, he will likely fizzle out.

Cruz appeals to a narrow segment of Republican voters: evangelicals and no-compromise tea partiers who do play an outsize role in the nominating contest, for the simple reason that they turn out to vote, but who do not represent the electorate at large.

In the second half of March and the month of April, the primaries will benefit a more reasonable candidate.

One is Florida, the home state of both Bush and Rubio. Another is Ohio, whose moderately conservative governor, John Kasich, is running as well. Then there’s Connecticut, Maryland and New York. As we have reported, these Democratic-voting states carry more weight than Republican-voting ones in the South. Not only because they have bigger populations and hence more delegates; party rules also give an advantage to districts that would almost certainly vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election.

Put simply: the party has designed the nominating process in such a way as to make sure it has a candidate before the convention — and preferably one who can actually win in 2016.

A contested convention would be a sign of failure. There are a lot of people who don’t want that to happen and that’s why it probably won’t.

Leave a reply