During the last presidential election cycle I was asked, numerous times, to comment on what seemed like the inevitability of a brokered Republican National Convention.
These questions came as I’d written a detailed book, "Reagan’s Revolution," about the 1976 GOP fight between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — the last real contested convention. The speculation was Donald Trump would not get enough delegates for a first ballot nomination.
Now, four years later I find myself, once again, being asked the same question.
Except this time, it appears that it’s the Democrats who are worried they might head to their convention without a nominee. Ironically enough, the modern primary nomination process was explicitly designed to avoid just such a circumstance.
In the post-Civil War era and the presence of the modern political parties, there have been no fewer than 24 brokered (multi-ballot) conventions, nine Democrats and 15 Republican conventions.
Of these brokered conventions, only six Democrats and five Republican nominees have gone on to win the presidency. The record for most ballots cast was in 1924 when 103 ballots for John Davis of West Virginia to be nominated.
The 1924 Democratic convention took a week and prompted satirist H. L. Mencken to write, "There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or hanging. It is vulgar, it ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it’s hard upon both the cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus . . . One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates were dead and in hell . . . "
Mencken had reason to be cynical.
The KKK was a strong force at the Democratic convention and successfully fought off attempts to put anti-lynching plank in the platform.
For many years, the Democratic Party was officially on record and as being pro-lynching.
The one saving grace of the 1924 Democratic convention was it opposed Prohibition.
The last brokered convention occurred in 1952.
There, it took three ballots to secure the Democratic nomination for Adlai Stevenson.
As technology and communication evolved, state parties sought more transparent and secure ways to select their nominee. As a result, the political convention morphed from a serious candidate crucible to a, largely, ceremonial coronation, orchestrated by shallow and insignificant campaign consultants.
While this is a disappointment to many pugilists and political junkies, party insiders hoped the more transparent process would lead to marshaling momentum early around a single candidate.
While there have been no brokered conventions since 1952, there have been close calls, as in 1976, when Gerald Ford, by hook and crook, seized the GOP nomination in Kansas City from former California Ronald Reagan by just 69 delegate votes out of the 2,269 cast the next to last night of the confab.
Sometimes, the presumptive nominee on the eve of the convention doesn’t have the delegates to clinch the nomination or only leads by a slight margin.
In 10 such cases, (three Republican and seven Democrats) delegates have switched their votes to the front-runners. This is usually the result of the kind of backroom deals that most Americans detest. As a result, only three of these ten candidates have gone on to win their election.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was one in 1952, who arrived in Chicago far behind Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, but underhanded seating credentials along with a shady assist by then-Sen. Richard Nixon tipped the convention to the moderate Ike, away from the conservative choice, Taft.
This early in the race, there’s little to suggest that 2020 will see a brokered convention.
It’s far too early for such speculation — yet the same was true in 2016.
2016 was no contest.
Trump won almost every single state and had an unassailable lead, both in delegates and votes by an almost 2 to 1 margin. Technically, the RNC (a private club) could have bucked the rules and the delegates to pick another, more palatable, candidate.
Yet, there was no real chance of this happening without shattering the Republican Party as a whole.
The same holds true for the Democrats. All things being equal, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is still in the race, but party insiders are loathed at the prospect of him clinching the nomination, preferring the more moderate and established, albeit unreliable, former Vice President Biden.
The possibility of a 2020 brokered convention is still far too vague to predict with any accuracy but, rest assured, this fact won't stand in the way of insiders and talking heads prattling on incessantly about it.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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