Imagine it on your television screen — or Facebook page, or Twitter feed — this summer:
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Brawls are breaking out over the convention hall, including a fistfight between the governors of Colorado and Kentucky! A thousand cops spill into the building, screaming threats and swinging billyclubs! Outside, the scene is even worse, with 20,000 Ku Klux Klan members throwing baseballs at an effigy of a Catholic candidate!
Welcome to the raucous, rambunctious and rebellious world of brokered political conventions, where anything goes, and the first casualty is decorum. Once-common scenes like that one, from the grueling 1924 Democratic convention in New York City that lasted 16 days and 103 ballots, have long been erased from American political playbooks.
But a growing number of analysts and pols think we might see a spectacular recurrence this summer as vanquished Republican candidates unite for a desperate last stand against a Donald Trump campaign that arrives at the GOP convention just a few votes short of a majority.
And whatever that might mean for the broad cause of American democracy or the prospects of the Republican candidate, nearly everybody agrees that it would be an awesome — and, eventually, awful — experience for political junkies, journalists and connoisseurs of egregious excess.
“Political junkies like me will love it, and so will reporters,” predicts Arizona State University historian Brooks Simpson. “But all those of us who want to see this thing may come to regret it. It could turn into the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment.”
All those of us who want to see this thing may come to regret it.
Arizona State University historian Brooks Simpson
Brokered conventions, where the real work in selecting candidates goes on in backroom bargaining among political bosses rather than in the open floor votes, once were frequent in U.S. presidential elections. Between 1868 and 1952, 18 of the 44 party conventions took more than one ballot to settle on a candidate, usually a sure sign that deals had to be struck.
The last multi-ballot convention took place in 1952, when Democrats had to vote three times before settling on Adlai Stevenson as their sacrificial lamb to run against World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. And as late as 1968, Democrats chose a nominee — Vice President Hubert Humphrey — who hadn’t run in a single primary yet was the preferred candidate of the party-machinery chieftains.
Soon after that, though, both Democrats and Republicans began reforms that put more emphasis on primary elections and caucuses that bound delegates to the will of their state’s voters rather than backroom party potentates. (Also helping: The Democrats’ abandonment, in 1936, of a rule that their nominee had to have a two-thirds majority of delegates.)
But with three candidates — Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich — still in the race, and 166 delegates pledged to Marco Rubio, who has dropped out — the prospects of a return to the entertaining if not terribly democratic ways of the past when the Republicans convene in Cleveland on July 18 seem to be increasing daily.
“I’d say the chances of a brokered convention are somewhere around 30 or 40 percent, and they’re growing all the time,” says James Campbell, who teaches political science at the State University of New York in Buffalo and is author of the upcoming book Polarized: Making Sense Of A Divided America. “And if it happens, well, nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”
That’s not quite literally true. A sizable number of Americans can still remember the 1976 Republican convention at which incumbent President Gerald Ford withstood a determined insurgency by Ronald Reagan. That convention, which began with neither candidate holding a majority of delegates, lasted only one ballot. But it was the political equivalent of the night before Christmas, with visions of patronage sugarplums dancing before the eyes of the delegates — and not in their dreams, either.
The Ford and Reagan campaigns dangled everything from federal construction contracts to invitations to visit an aircraft carrier in front of wavering delegates. The bidding war grew so bold that some of it was carried out right in front of journalists — an ABC reporter witnessed a delegate asking Ford for a federal judgeship for his brother.
That particular solicitation was denied. But Reagan, attempting to shake loose some delegates in the big Pennsylvania delegation, named the state’s liberal U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate, despite the fact they were about as ideologically compatible as Joseph Stalin and Mother Teresa. It didn’t work; Pennsylvania was solidly under control of a Ford boss.
I’d say the chances of a brokered convention are somewhere around 30 or 40 percent, and they’re growing all the time.
Political science professor James Campbell
The most fired-upon target of all was the uncommitted Mississippi delegation, which had promised to vote en masse for the candidate who offered the best deal. But as promises of goodies flew thick and fast in the minutes before voting began, discipline broke down. “Everybody wanted something different, and the delegation went to pieces,” recalls John C. Henry, a retired Associated Press news editor who covered the convention as a young Mississippi reporter.
“When Mississippi’s name came up to vote on the roll call, they had to pass because nobody could agree on who was voting for who. They went through the whole list of states, down to Wyoming, which put Ford over the top, and Mississippi was left with nothing.”
That 1976 Republican gathering transfixed — and slightly horrified — Americans, who gave it the largest television ratings of any political convention ever. But its skullduggery was mild compared to many previous brokered conventions. In 1880, the Republican Party was hopelessly wracked by a split between the so-called Stalwart faction (which believed that government jobs should openly be used as political spoils to reward supporters of winning candidates) and the Half-Breeds (who wanted to install a non-partisan civil service on the federal bureaucracy).
When the party couldn’t settle on a candidate after 31 ballots, a few party bosses decided to test the chances of a compromise candidate, Ohio’s colorless U.S. Sen. James Garfield, a former schoolteacher better known for spinning mathematical theories about Pythagorean triangles than politics.
But nobody told Garfield, who first sensed something was afoot when he got 16 votes on the 32nd ballot. “No man has a right without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name and vote for him in this convention,” declared the horrified Garfield. He promptly got 50 votes in the next round, and by the 36th ballot, he was the nominee.
One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell.
H.L. Mencken, on the 1924 Democratic convention
Garfield’s reward was to be assassinated by a disgruntled Stalwart six months into his presidency. Much luckier was another unwilling nominee at a brokered convention, Horatio Seymour, a surprise choice of the Democrats in 1868 after three days and 18 ballots. “He was dragged from the convention hall screaming, ‘Please don’t do this to me!”’ says historian Simpson.
The most epic of all brokered conventions was the 1924 Democratic convention in New York that lasted 103 ballots. Split between pro- and anti-Ku Klux Klan factions, so many delegates tried to settle things with fists and broken furniture that hundreds of police had to rush the floor. Nineteen candidates got votes on the first ballot, 60 by the end.
Practically everything that could go wrong did. One organizer brought in battery-powered fire alarms for use at his candidate’s demonstrations that drove delegates bat-guano crazy — though perhaps less so than the convention band, which during a debate about the Klan played Marching Through Georgia (“Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain”), a salute to General Sherman’s bloody drive through the state during the Civil War.
As the convention dragged on into its second week, entire delegations went broke and left for home. Klansmen, meanwhile, kept pouring into the city and its suburbs, staging a giant Fourth of July rally complete where, for a nickel, you could throw three baseballs at an effigy of candidate Al Smith, New York’s Catholic governor.
Reporters were impressed. “One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell,” noted the Baltimore Evening Sun’s H.L. Mencken. Cracked columnist Will Rogers: “I do not belong to any organized party. I am a Democrat.” Voters, who listened to the convention on a nationwide radio hookup were less so; Davis got just 29 percent of the vote in November.
And that was before we had Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and all the rest.
Throw those into the mix this summer, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, and “the echo chamber will be deafening. I’m not going to pontificate about the effect on democracy. But for the party, unless it ended well, it’s likely to be a disaster.”