What is a Brokered Convention and is It Likely?

In American politics, a brokered convention is a scenario in which nobody wins a presidential primary. Instead, party leaders chose the presidential nominee behind closed doors.

Essentially, brokered conventions are how the political parties chose the nominees before 1968. Ideally, elected delegates from around the country gathered at a convention center and elected a nominee.

In reality, power brokers often gathered behind doors and chose candidates through secret deals. That system fell apart in the 1950s and 1960s because of charges of corruption and elitism.

Many pundits are speculating about a brokered convention in 2020 because the Democrats have several presidential candidates, and an unpopular front runner. Some centrists think they could stop U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and the left from seizing the party and the nomination through a brokered convention.

How Brokered Conventions Work

A classic brokered convention was the Democratic Convention of 1844.

To explain, two powerful and popular factions were fighting for control of the party. Expansionists, led by Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) wanted annexation of Texas, and a war of conquest with Mexico. A rival faction led by former President Martin Van Buren (D-New York) opposed the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico because those policies could extend slavery to the Pacific.

At the Baltimore convention, neither Cass or Van Buren supporters had enough votes to nominate a candidate. Instead, party leaders pulled another candidate; James K. Polk (D-Tennessee), out of a hat. Polk won the nomination and the presidency in November.

Primaries and Conventions

Many conventions between 1844 and 1968 followed the Baltimore template. To clarify, party leaders recruited a third compromise candidate acceptable to different factions.

The objection to such brokered conventions is they are corrupt and undemocratic. During the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, many cynics believed corrupt political bosses controlled the convention nominating process and stripped ordinary people of the vote.

This belief inspired the creation of presidential primaries beginning in North Dakota in 1912. During the 20th Century, a hybrid presidential nominating system in which some states held primary elections to select convention delegates developed.

History Shows a Brokered Convention is Unlikely

History shows a brokered Democratic Convention is unlikely in 2020.

First, the last time a party held a brokered convention, it lost the presidential election. That party was the Democrats in 1968.

In detail, the Democrats’ presumed 1968 standard bearer; President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) dropped out suddenly in March. Then another popular candidate, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) was assassinated. That left one primary challenger U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota) in the race.

Instead of McCarthy, party leaders nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) for president. Humphrey had not run in the primary. Thus, Humphrey was the last major party presidential nominee not selected by ordinary voters. Humphrey’s nomination triggered a firestorm of controversy; including riots at the convention and calls for reform.

Humphrey lost the general election to Richard M. Nixon (R-California) by a margin of 301 to 191 Electoral College votes. Afterwards, the Democratic Party adopted new rules that required voters elect all convention delegates.

Second, in 2016, the Republicans went with a popular but unconventional candidate; Donald J. Trump (R-New York), who won a clear majority in the primaries. Trump won the Presidential election, despite strong opposition and widespread criticism.

Why Democrats will Reject a Brokered Convention

The events of 1968 and 2016 make a brokered convention unlikely. When Democrats went with a brokered convention in 1968, they lost.

When Republicans went with the primary choice in 2016, they won. Moreover, the Republicans won when most polls predicted a Democratic victory in 2016.

I think Democrats will run with whoever gets a clear majority of the primary vote, even if it is Sanders. Democrats will accept a Sanders nomination because they want to win, and history shows sticking with the primary nominee is the best path to victory.

Thus, brokered conventions are history, and we need to ignore those pundits who are predicting one. Remember, these are the same pundits who predicted a brokered Republican Convention in 2016. Instead, we got the usual boring week-long infomercial for the party and the front runner from the Grand Old Party.

I predict the pundits will be wrong again, and we will not see a brokered convention in 2020.