Experts Address Prospect, Impact of Brokered Republican National Convention

Republicans may very well head to their national convention this summer without a clear presidential nominee—a situation that could prompt deal-making and potentially weaken the party, according to UT experts.

Anthony Nownes

Anthony Nownes

Although Donald Trump is the Republican front runner, “it is looking increasingly likely” that neither he nor Ted Cruz will have earned the required 1,237 delegates to win the nomination before delegates gather, which makes a brokered convention a real possibility, said Anthony Nownes, political science professor, and Richard Pacelle, head of UT’s Department of Political Science.

A brokered convention results when no candidate has garnered a majority of the delegates required to secure the nomination before the convention begins. In most election years, each party knows whom it will select as its nominee well before the convention because one candidate has secured a majority of delegates through primary elections and caucuses.

pacelle

Richard Pacelle

A contested or brokered convention would involve wheeling and dealing and promises to get delegates to commit to a candidate or to stop another—a direction in which 2016 Republicans seem to be heading, Pacelle said. He noted that the party writes convention rules and can change them even up to the last minute.

“The Republican establishment has not been happy with the prospect of Trump winning the nomination and has tried to thwart his efforts,” he said.

How voters will react to a brokered convention remains to be seen.

“On the one hand, I doubt that Donald Trump is correct that a brokered convention that resulted in a Trump loss would lead to riots in the streets,” Nownes said. “On the other hand, I have no doubt that a brokered convention that denied Trump the nomination even though he won the most delegates would upset a lot of Republican voters.”

Brokered conventions are not new—although they have become rare. Both the Republican and Democratic parties last had a brokered convention in 1952, but there have been several close calls in recent years, he said.

Brokered or contested conventions were formerly the rule rather than the exception, Pacelle said. Previously, states had few caucuses and primaries and delegates were selected in state conventions with the parties having tremendous control. Presidential nominations were decided on the floor of the national convention, often after a few ballots.

In the early 1970s, both parties began holding primaries in an effort to make the process more transparent and give voters a voice. Based on voters’ choices, the parties would then award delegates.

“Since the primary system arose, brokered conventions have become sort of a dinosaur of American politics,” he said.

Republicans might deviate from this course in 2016 and attempt to sidestep Trump, which, Pacelle said, would create a dilemma.

“To stop Trump they would risk losing his rabid supporters and risk his launching a third-party candidacy that would be destructive to the party,” Pacelle said. “An establishment attempt to stop Trump would play into the narrative that he has used throughout the campaign.

“The worst-case scenario is that Trump shows up at the convention with the most delegates by a fair number, but not quite a majority. He could have over 1,200, but be a couple of dozen short. Denying him the nomination would be seen as a rebuke to the voters.”

 

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Anthony Nownes (865-621-4475, anownes@utk.edu)

Richard Pacelle (865-974-2845, rpacelle@utk.edu)