What is a Brokered Convention?

Now that we’ve established what a contested convention is, let’s move on to a brokered convention. A brokered convention is when party officials broker or negotiate backroom consensus with delegates, or change the nomination rules to facilitate the selection of presidential and vice presidential nominees.

Since the advent of the primary era, there has only been a single brokered convention on record – the 1912 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, which saw former president, the swashbuckling Theodore Roosevelt, coming out of retirement to face-off against his one-time protégé, the incumbent, President Howard Taft. Roosevelt handily defeated Taft in the primaries, winning nine states to Taft’s two, acquiring 278 delegates to his opponent’s 48 delegates along way.

What followed next in the Chicago Coliseum has been commonly described as the most controversial national conventional in U.S. history.

Party officials, who were almost unanimously aligned with establishment choice Taft, brokered backroom deals with delegates from 36 non-primary states to whittle down Roosevelt’s delegates.

Upon learning of this, Roosevelt tried to remove the convention’s temporary chairman, Elihu Root, on the first day of the convention. Not only did his motion failed, Roosevelt discovered that his 571 delegates, higher than the required 540 to secure the nomination, had mysteriously gone down by 72 delegates after the state party chairmen for Arizona, California, Texas and Washington withdrew their support and directed their delegates to sit in the Taft ‘section’ of the Coliseum.

Right before voting commenced, the Republican National Committee unilaterally awarded Taft another 235 delegates, some of whom had publicly pledged their support to Roosevelt. With 602 delegates in his corner, it was clear that Taft would win the nomination. A furious Roosevelt stormed out of the convention hall and ordered all delegates supporting him to abstain from voting. However, 107 die-hard supporters still cast their vote for him before joining another 322 delegates leaving the hall.

To this day, many remain shocked at the audacious machinations of party officials to secure the nomination for Taft. Of course, it all ended in tears for Taft when he was massacred in the general election by Democrat Woodrow Wilson several months later. Even more embarrassingly, Taft ended third behind Roosevelt, who contested under the umbrella of the newly-formed Progressive Party.

This naturally raises the obvious question – can the Republican National Committee force a brokered convention if Donald Trump somehow secures 1,237 delegates before the convention?

The answer is a resounding yes.

There are several things that the Republican National Committee can do - or more specifically, the convention’s 112-member rules panel, which comprises of two officials from each state and territory. It is important to remember that the Republican Party is a private organization governed by its own rules and bylaws, all which can be changed according to mechanisms prescribed in the party’s rules. So, how would one go about brokering the convention?

Option 1: Raising the nomination requirement

This is simple. In the interest of party unity, just raise the amount of delegates required to secure the nomination from 1,237 to whatever number is convenient. However, this is risky as the preferred candidates will also have to abide by the new requirement.

Option 2: Raise the Eight-State Rule

Rule 40 (b) of the rules for the election and government of the Republican National Committee stipulates that:

“Each candidate for nomination for President of the United States and Vice President of the United States shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states, severally, prior to the presentation of the name of that candidate for nomination.”

This basically means that a candidate must win at least 50% of the votes in eight primaries or caucuses. Raising the number of states to, say, 10 or 15, might just keep any unwanted candidates at bay until an accommodation can be achieved with all the candidates.

Option 3: Change the state delegate’s voting laws

The majority of delegates must vote according to primary or caucus results, at least in the first round of voting. However, if state parties agree to amend their rules just this one time, delegates will be able to vote for whomever they want in the first round of voting.

Now keep in mind that most delegates and state officials have been members of the Republican Party for a long, long time. Above everything else, their loyalties lie with the party, not the candidates. If sufficient pressure is applied, or if they belief inaction would damage the party, it isn’t hard to imagine them tweaking the rules just this once. The greater good argument has been made for lesser causes.

Of course, thwarting the will of the grassroots could turn out to be very costly politically – even more than the GOP could afford -, and nothing of the sort might happen.


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