Will There Be a Brokered Convention? Here’s What’s Happened Before

Every four years, party strategists, political junkies and, well, reporters ponder the question, some with dread and others with relish:

Is this the year we will finally see a brokered convention?

It has been nearly 70 years since there was a true nominating fight on the convention floor, with candidates nervously waiting for delegates to go through rounds of voting to pick the eventual candidate.

Since then, both parties have made rule changes for picking and counting delegates to avoid that situation, primarily because a nominee in a brokered convention very rarely goes on to win the general election.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is leading the Democratic delegate race so far, and seems poised to continue his successful primary run. But none of his seven competitors appear willing to drop out and party leaders continue to fret about a Sanders candidacy, increasing apprehension about a suspenseful convention in Milwaukee, rather than the predictable media event Americans have grown used to.

Decades ago, party bosses controlled how delegates voted, but the primary system has been democratized so that voters ultimately pick the nominee. Still, if a candidate goes into the convention with doubts about his or her viability, chaos can ensue.

Here’s what history suggests could happen.

Brokered and contested are often used interchangeably, but there are distinctions.

A brokered convention happens when a candidate fails to win a majority of delegates after the first round of voting, something that has not occurred with either party since 1952. Delegates then keep voting until a nominee is picked. In between votes, horse trading and negotiating may go on behind the scenes, with candidates promising each other the vice presidency or another job in exchange for dropping out.

A contested convention is when a candidate has a lead but is not guaranteed to secure the nomination after the first ballot, said Elaine C. Kamarck, a former member of the Democratic National Committee.

The last Democrat who won the general election after multiple rounds of voting at the convention was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. For Republicans, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

Both contested and brokered conventions hinder “the candidate’s general ability to show they have a united party behind them,” said Suzanne Chod, associate professor of political science at North Central College. This year, especially, Democrats should fear either one, she said.

“The No. 1 thing on the mind of current primary voters is beating the current president, and the last thing they should want is a contested convention,” Professor Chod said. “Even if it could be fun to watch.”

For more than a century, party leaders like governors, senators and mayors controlled the delegates and picked the nominee. Most candidates saw traveling the country to seek voter and delegate support as a waste of time.

Senator Estes Kefauver learned this in 1952, when he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, said Ms. Kamarck, who wrote a book about primaries and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Kefauver, a Tennessee liberal who led congressional hearings into organized crime, tried to convert his fame into a successful presidential run.

He won 12 of 15 primaries before the July convention, handily defeating his opponent, Adlai Stevenson. But the hearings that made him famous also took down several prominent Democrats.

Resentful party bosses instructed their delegates to pick Mr. Stevenson, who won the nomination after three rounds of voting but lost in the fall to Eisenhower.

Voters did not replace party bosses until after the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where antiwar activists gathered in the streets to protest, in part, the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who was seen as the establishment candidate.

Mr. Humphrey had campaigned only for delegates while his opponents, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, sought the support of primary voters.

Mr. Kennedy, who was seen as Mr. Humphrey’s strongest rival, was assassinated before the convention. Mr. Humphrey cruised to the nomination, but protesters were beaten in front of reporters on the streets — and the violent images revealed a deeply divided party.

By 1972, Democrats had changed the rules so that when candidates won primaries, they were apportioned a certain number of pledged delegates based on the percentage of the vote they received.

For the first time, voters had a real say in the nominee, Ms. Kamarck said.

“Primaries become binding instead of merely beauty contests,” she said.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter went into the convention having won the majority of delegates over Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had challenged him during the primary. But Mr. Kennedy would not accept defeat. At the convention, he and his operatives moved to persuade delegates to leave Mr. Carter, arguing that delegates should be free to switch allegiances.

“It was wild, totally, totally wild,” said Ms. Kamarck, who was a 30-year-old party employee at the time. “It was an all-out assault on President Carter by Senator Kennedy.”

Delegations broke out into arguments on the floor. One Kennedy supporter marched to the lectern to scream at a Carter operative when credentials for Kennedy supporters failed to arrive. The sergeant-at-arms had to separate them, Ms. Kamarck recalled.

Finally, Mr. Kennedy abandoned the effort — but humiliated Mr. Carter toward the end of the convention. Mr. Carter wanted the senator to join him onstage so they could hold hands as a sign of unity.

Instead, Mr. Kennedy forced the president to wait at the lectern while he glad-handed on the floor. He finally joined Mr. Carter onstage and shook his hand coolly.

Soon after the 1980 convention, Democrats introduced superdelegates, who could vote for the candidate of their choice, regardless of the voters, said Norman Williams, a law professor at Willamette University. That accomplished two goals: throwing support behind a candidate more favored by the establishment and increasing the show of support around a candidate to avoid another debacle.

In 2016, supporters of Mr. Sanders complained that superdelegates were symbolic of a “rigged” system that gave party leaders and donors a chance to subvert the will of voters. Democrats later amended party rules so that superdelegates would cast ballots only if there were multiple rounds of voting.

After 1980, conventions for both parties became mostly tame and so predictable that in 1996, the “Nightline” host Ted Koppel told viewers that he was leaving the Republican convention early and would treat the Democratic convention the same way.

“This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event,” he said.

History would suggest that whoever goes into the convention with 1,991 delegates is pretty much assured the nomination.

True, delegates are not robots, as Mr. Kennedy tried to argue in 1980, and party rules allow them to switch allegiances. The rules say delegates “shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” This gives wiggle room to a delegate who may be worried that Mr. Sanders’s objectives are too far out of the mainstream to make him electable in the fall.

“Sanders is a very polarizing candidate, and as we learn more about him we’ll have to see if people develop buyer’s remorse,” Ms. Kamarck said.

It was the same dilemma Republicans faced in 2016 when Donald J. Trump became the nominee.

But like Republicans, Democrats are unlikely to overrule voters and create a situation where candidates and party operatives begin wheeling and dealing, Professor Williams said.

“Brokered conventions are a bad thing for the health of the party and democracy,” he said. “Now it’s not the voters making a choice, but the candidates or party insiders making the choice.”

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