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In United States politics, a brokered convention (sometimes referred to as an open convention and closely related to a contested convention) can occur during a presidential election when a political party fails to choose a nominee on the first round of delegate voting at the party's nominating convention.
Once the first ballot, or vote, has occurred, and no candidate has a majority of the delegates' votes, the convention is then considered brokered; thereafter, the nomination is decided through a process of alternating political horse trading—(super) delegate vote trading—and additional re-votes. In this circumstance, all regular delegates (who may have been pledged to a particular candidate according to rules which vary from state to state) are "released" and are able to switch their allegiance to a different candidate before the next round of balloting. It is hoped that this extra privilege extended to the delegates will result in a re-vote yielding a clear majority of delegates for one candidate.
The term "brokered" implies a strong role for political bosses, more common in the past and associated with deals made in proverbial "smoke-filled rooms", while the term "contested" is a more modern term for a convention where no candidate holds a majority but the role of party leaders is weaker in determining the eventual outcome.
For the Democratic Party, unpledged delegate votes, also called "Superdelegate votes" used to be counted on the first ballot. Although some used the term "brokered convention" to refer to a convention where the outcome is decided by Superdelegate votes rather than pledged delegates alone, this is not the original sense of the term, nor has it been a commonly used definition of a "contested convention." As of 2018, Democratic party superdelegates will only participate if no winner emerges after the first round of balloting.
Specific party rules
Under the Democratic National Convention rules, "A majority vote of the Convention's delegates shall be required to nominate the presidential candidate" and "Balloting will continue until a nominee is selected". Superdelegates are party leaders who participate as delegates if no winner emerges after the first round. Prior to 2018, they were allowed to partcipate in the first round as well.
The rules are subject to change every election cycle and is determined by the Republican National Convention prior to the convention date. An example of this is Rule 40b of the RNC which was in effect in 2012, but has not been adopted for the 2016 convention in Cleveland. Under this rule, a candidate must have the support of a majority of the delegates of at least eight states in order to get the nomination. Rule 40e then states that if no candidate has received the majority of votes, "the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of the states be called again and shall repeat the calling of the roll until a candidate shall have received a majority of the votes."
Brokered conventions in history
Before the era of presidential primary elections, political party conventions were routinely brokered. The Democratic Party required two-thirds of delegates to choose a candidate, starting with the first Democratic National Convention in 1832, and then at every convention from 1844 until 1936. This made it far more likely to have a brokered convention, particularly when two strong factions existed.
The most infamous example was at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, where the divisions between Wets and Drys on Prohibition (and other issues) led to 102 ballots of deadlock between frontrunners Alfred E. Smith and William G. McAdoo before dark horse John W. Davis was chosen as a compromise candidate on the 103rd ballot.
Adlai Stevenson (of the 1952 Democratic Party) and Dwight Eisenhower (of the 1952 Republican Party) were the most recent "brokered convention" presidential nominees, of their respective parties. Eisenhower had 595 delegates out of 1,206 in the first roll call. However, the convention did not record that as official even though it was an actual vote.
Conventions close to being contested
Since 1952, there have been several years when brokered conventions were projected but did not come to pass:
- The Democratic Party's 1968 convention might have been brokered if Robert F. Kennedy had not been assassinated. He had won four of the primaries including California, but not enough delegates were then selected by primaries to determine the presidential nominee. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had decided against running for a second full term, still controlled most of the party machinery and used it in support of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who did not contest the primaries, although two surrogates won their home states. If Kennedy had lived, the convention likely would have been divided between his and Humphrey's supporters.
- The 1968 Republican National Convention featured former Vice President Richard Nixon as the clear delegate leader, but with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller among others trying to prevent him gaining a majority. During the early days of the convention Rockefeller supporters claimed there was "erosion" among Nixon delegates. If there was, it was minor, and Nixon went on to win a first-ballot nomination.
- In the 1972 Democratic National Convention delegate leader George McGovern was not assured of victory until a procedural move to reject some of his California delegates was averted on the first day of the convention.
- In 1976, the Republican primaries gave President Gerald Ford a slight lead in both popular vote and delegates before the Republican National Convention, but he did not have enough delegates to secure the nomination. A brokered convention was predicted but Ford managed to receive the necessary support on the first ballot to edge Ronald Reagan. That is the last time a Republican presidential convention opened without the nominee having been decided in the primaries.
- In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy, challenging incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, fell short in the primaries, but he was still urging delegates to switch over to him when he arrived at the Democratic convention in August. However, Carter won handily on the first ballot, and Kennedy dropped out of the running a few hours later.
- In 1984, as a result of the Democratic primaries, former Vice President Walter Mondale was the clear frontrunner but remained 40 delegates short of securing the nomination. His nomination had to be formalized at the convention, being the last time that any presidential convention opened without the nominee having been decided in the primaries. However, a convention fight was unlikely, as rival Gary Hart was lobbying for the vice presidential nomination and was resigned to the likely possibility that Mondale would receive the presidential nomination. Mondale indeed received the overwhelming support of superdelegates on the first ballot to become the Democratic presidential candidate.
Races where predictions of being contested failed
- In 1988, a brokered convention was predicted for the Democrats. There was no clear frontrunner since Gary Hart had withdrawn. Also, Paul Simon, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson had each won primaries. Dukakis was named the frontrunner by the media, as he drew support from all sections of the nation while other candidates' support was largely limited to their native regions, and he maintained the momentum and secured the nomination in the next round of primaries.
- For the 2008 election there had been speculation that the Democratic Party's national convention might be brokered, or at least that the convention might commence without a presumptive nominee. For the Democrats a brokered convention was considered possible, as it was unclear for a time whether either of the two frontrunners, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, would be able to win a majority of pledged delegates before the convention. The only other candidate to win delegates was John Edwards, who withdrew after the first month of the contests. Although Edwards won less than 0.5% of the delegates, the race between Obama and Clinton was narrow. If neither candidate had a majority of delegates by the time the primaries finished on June 3, the candidates might have had to seek support from the undecided remainder of the superdelegates in order to secure a majority at the convention. Nancy Pelosi, the chair of the Democratic National Convention, had argued that the superdelegates should not overrule the results of the primaries. In the last week of the primaries, Howard Dean, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, called for the undecided remainder of the superdelegates to commit to either remaining presidential candidate. His intention was to ensure that the nomination would be decided once the last primaries concluded on June 3. In the end, a brokered convention did not transpire, as by June 3 Obama had enough pledged delegates and supportive superdelegates to secure a majority at the convention.
- There was also speculation that the 2008 Republican primaries would result in a brokered convention, due to the number of strong candidates and their different geographic bases. The number of "winner take all" states benefits candidates with strong regional support. In addition, the weakened power of President Bush to force candidates out of the race results in fewer levels of influence for them. At one point it was thought likely that five early contests would be won by five different candidates (Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire, Romney in Nevada, Thompson in South Carolina, Giuliani in Florida). However, McCain won South Carolina and Florida in addition to New Hampshire and would remain dominant for the rest of the primary season. Thus a contested convention did not come close to happening.
- In the 2016 Republican primaries, there was considerable speculation, from presidential candidate Donald Trump's opponents in his own party, that a contested convention might take place. On March 16, 2016, Former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said that in the case of a brokered convention he would support the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, for the nomination, despite the fact that Ryan was not a presidential candidate. Boehner's remarks sparked controversy, by implying that the Republican Party was not necessarily obliged to select a candidate participating in the primary election process. Trump's significant victory in the Indiana primary on May 3, 2016 caused his final two opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, to suspend their campaigns shortly thereafter, and Trump, at that point the only candidate with an active campaign, handily won all the remaining contests, reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the nomination by May 26.
Brokered conventions today
Several factors encourage a clear and timely decision in the primary process.
First, candidates tend to get momentum as they go through the process because of the bandwagon effect. Thus, one or two candidates will be portrayed by the media to voters as the front runners as a result of their placement in the first primaries and caucuses, and as also-ran candidates drop out, their supporters will tend to vote for the leaders. Theorists have identified two types of political momentum, piecemeal and all-at-once, with different impacts on front-runners and those right behind them.
Secondly, political parties wish to avoid the negative publicity from a brokered convention and to maximize the amount of time the nominee has to campaign for the presidency.
Especially because of the desire to foster party unity in the months leading up to Election Day, it is considered possible if not probable that any "brokering" that may be required for a future presidential convention will take place in the weeks and months leading up to the convention, once it becomes clear that no candidate will likely secure a majority of delegates without an agreement with one or more rivals. Such an agreement would likely commit the frontrunner to make some form of concession(s) in return, such as selecting the former rival as his/her vice presidential nominee. That was the case prior to the 1980 Republican National Convention. California Governor Ronald Reagan won the presidential nomination and chose George H. W. Bush as his vice presidential nominee despite former President Gerald Ford being the frontrunner for the slot.
In popular culture
In the U.S. edition of House of Cards, two episodes of the fourth season center around an open convention run by the DNC. Incumbent Frank Underwood is easily nominated for the presidency, but the vice presidential nomination is contested between Secretary of State Catherine Durant and First Lady Claire Underwood.
The last two episodes of season six of the US series The West Wing centers on the Democratic Party's nomination process while three candidates vie for the nomination: Vice President Bob Russell, former Vice President John Hoynes, and Representative Matt Santos. A fourth, Governor Eric Baker, attempts to get nominated from the floor after the first ballot fails to produce a nominee.
In the final season of satiricial comedy series Veep, Selina Meyer gets caught in a brokered convention. She manages to win the nomination but only after a series of compromising decisions including pledging to ban same-sex marriage and open up federal land to oil drilling, encouraging Tom James' campaign manager to expose his sexual exploitation of her to derail his attempt to win the nomination and nominating the populist, nativist Jonah Ryan as her running mate.
- Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2016
- 2016 Democratic National Convention
- Republican Party presidential primaries, 2016
- 2016 Republican National Convention
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