Let’s say it happens. Let’s say there’s actually a brokered convention this year. Who wins?
The Democrats, probably. A brokered convention is most often considered as part of a white-knight scenario. The idea is that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul take this all the way to Tampa, and none of them have enough delegates to win on the first ballot. At that point, one of the Republican Party’s heavyweights — Mitch Daniel or Paul Ryan or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush — jumps in to unite the GOP and challenge Obama. But this is rarely looked at from the perspective of the potential draftee. To him, this would be a suicide mission.
The Republican Convention begins on Aug. 27. The election is on Nov. 6. A candidate who emerged during the convention — or even slightly before it — would have two months and some change to hire a national campaign staff, raise money, get on the air, craft a message, study up on the issues, decide on an agenda, introduce himself to voters, build out a ground game, etc. They would have two months, in other words, to become competitive with Obama’s ferocious campaign organization. And none of the potential candidates have ever run national campaigns before. In Ryan’s case, he’s never even run statewide in Wisconsin.
Nor would this candidate have had a smooth coronation some imagine. Brokered conventions are, almost always, angry, ugly things. The candidates who have been campaigning for the nomination don’t give up without a fight. Their supporters aren’t happy seeing months and months of work tossed aside so the establishment can choose someone new. Dozens of party actors — like Sarah Palin, who has been pushing the brokered convention idea hard — need to be bought off or otherwise mollified. The press is swarming everything, writing about the tensions and conflicts and doubts and concerns.
Prior to the 1970s, brokered conventions really were brokered. There were rooms, and cigars, and older white men making the decisions. But since then, both parties have rewritten their rules to emphasize public participation. So today, a brokered convention would be a fairly public — and, for the party, quite embarrassing — spectacle.
For all these reasons and more, top-tier candidates rarely want to get involved in convention fights anymore. That’s partly why contested conventions often go to one of the existing candidates rather than to a new choice. That’s what happened in 1984, when Walter Mondale was 50 delegates short of the nomination. That’s what happened in 1976, when Ronald Reagan fought Gerald Ford all the way to the convention. And in both those cases, of course, the party that couldn’t settle on a candidate before the convention lost the election.