Bring on the brokered convention

Bring on the brokered convention

As the first Democratic caucuses and primaries approach, the fear of a brokered convention is palpable. NBC News recently estimated the chance of a brokered convention to be between 25 and 50-percent. A November "Washington Post" article suggested Democratic leaders were concerned enough that they would take steps as early as March to ward off further competition. And the list goes on and on.

Almost every primary season begins with worries that the Democrats (or the Republicans) will fail to settle on a nominee. Although there have been some close calls, there has never been any suspense about who the nominee would be since the adoption of the modern primary system in 1972. Even if this year proves to be different, it’s crucial to establish that there’s no evidence a brokered convention would be bad for the party.

There are reasons why a brokered convention might not be ideal. The public might be turned off by the various backroom deals that would ensue. The party would have a nominee who came into the convention with fewer than fifty percent of the delegates behind him or her.


Instead of spending the spring attacking Donald Trump, Democrats would spend the spring and early summer attacking each other. A brokered convention would, according to new Democratic Party rules, give superdelegates a vote. And disgruntled supporters of the eventual losers might sit out the election or vote for Trump.

All of these things could happen, but the evidence that they would is scant. Since our last brokered convention was in 1952 — before the Internet age and, for that matter, the age of television — it’s worth considering the ways a brokered convention might help the Democratic nominee.

First, a brokered convention would come after a competitive series of primaries. Some studies of congressional or gubernatorial primaries have found that divisive primaries, late primaries, or primaries that go to a runoff wind up disadvantaging the eventual winner, but the effect is not uniform.

Divisive primaries can help candidates who aren’t well known before the campaign — they benefit from the attention paid to their primary campaigns. Many analyses of the 2008 presidential campaign have contended that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow Obama just endorsed Trump The truth behind Biden's 'you ain't black' gaffe Trump's needless nastiness and cruelty will catch up with him MORE benefited from the long primary. Voters got to know him better as the campaign went on, and he (and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLongtime Democratic pollster: Warren 'obvious solution' for Biden's VP pick How Obama just endorsed Trump Gabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton MORE) received more media coverage in May and June than would have been the case had the nomination been decided. The same could be said for a primary race that is determined at the convention.

Second, a brokered convention would make for must-see TV. Donald Trump will undoubtedly outraise the Democratic nominee. The free air time that the Democratic race and the eventual nominee would receive would be worth millions of dollars.


The public would tune in to see the drama of the convention, and Democrats could frame the convention so that the suspense was part of the show. It’s also quite possible that the vice presidential nominee would be chosen at the convention — perhaps as a means of merging competing candidacies. The dramatic possibilities are endless.

Third, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump marks 'very sad milestone' of 100K coronavirus deaths DOJ: George Floyd death investigation a 'top priority' Lifting our voices — and votes MORE would lose the opportunity to define the nominee. One advantage incumbent presidents have in their reelection bids is the ability to spend all their money running a general election campaign.

In 1996, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHow Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be No 'dole' for America: How to recover from COVID-19 MORE was advertising against Bob Dole after Dole had become the de facto nominee, but well before the convention, and there was little Dole could do to respond. The same fate befell John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe continuous whipsawing of climate change policy Budowsky: United Democrats and Biden's New Deal Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE in 2004 and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney defends Joe Scarborough, staffer's widower: 'Enough already' The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP beset by convention drama Loeffler runs ad tying Doug Collins to Pelosi, Sanders, Biden MORE in 2012. If there are three or four possible Democratic nominees, it is hard to imagine Trump being able to create effective attack ads.

It’s even possible to imagine a dark horse nominee emerging at the convention. Imagine, for instance, that Sanders, Warren, and Biden battle each other to a standstill or that Biden supporters will not accept a Sanders or Warren candidacy, and vice versa. Perhaps all sides could accept a Klobuchar / Booker ticket? The dark horse nominee would be credited with saving the party and would be unscathed by the primary process.

The major downside of a brokered convention is that the nominee would likely be broke and, given that the convention will be held the week of July 13, the Democratic Party would have just three and a half months to run its general election campaign.

It’s hard to imagine, given who Trump is, that fundraising would be a problem, and it’s also possible that the Democratic Party — aided by Michael Bloomberg or other Super PAC donors — would develop a general election infrastructure even without a candidate.

All of this is entirely hypothetical, but that’s the point. Predictions that a brokered convention would spell doom are just as hypothetical. Ultimately, we’ll only get to run this election once, so we’ll never know for certain whether a brokered convention is a good or a bad thing.

One person who might have some thoughts about this, however, is a certain former reality TV show host. It is hard to imagine that anyone would have bothered to tune in to the final episode each season of "The Apprentice" if it had been evident for weeks who the winner would be.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.