From the beginning of the 2012 Republican campaign, devotees of the Ron Paul campaign have been talking up the prospect of a brokered convention. As with most things that Ron Paul devotees talk up, sane people took no notice; or if they did bother to respond, it was to point out that Mitt Romney was a big favorite to win the nomination. However, while Mitt Romney remains the favorite, the resurgence of Rick Santorum and the general intransigence of Newt Gingrich means a brokered Republican Convention seems like a more realistic prospect than it has since 1976.
Therefore, now seems as good a time as any to make a post reminding people why brokered conventions are considered so undesirable and why, in my view, the powers-that-be in the Republican party will not allow such a convention to occur if that is at all within their power.
First, modern political conventions exist primarily so that parties can have three days of free primetime TV coverage with which they can extol the virtues of their candidate (and bash the other guy) directly to the voters, with minimal filtering by media. They are entirely produced and run by the campaigns of the nominee so that every speaker, every speech, every atmospheric detail, every everything goes toward the message that they are trying to get out. Conventions are exceptionally effective at this; many readers will have heard of the “convention bounce” whereby the nominee of a party gets a bump in the polls directly after the convention. But if there’s a brokered convention, the convention doesn’t get to have that function. Every second of convention airtime spent running ballots or arguing over who should be the nominee or talking about any candidate who doesn’t wind up being the nominee is a second that is not being utilized to maximum advantage. What’s more, whatever time is left in the brokered convention after they finally do figure out who the nominee will be (assuming there is any of this time) can’t be planned by that nominee’s campaign the same way a non-brokered convention would be.
Secondly, there is a cost to a party having an ugly fight on national television over who their nominee is going to be. Part of the reason that tough primary battles over the nomination aren’t as damaging to eventual nominees as some would like to think they are is that the majority of voters are not paying attention to election news in February or March. However, the conventions (along with the debates) are one of the two points in the general election cycle when voters who aren’t political junkies start really paying attention and deciding who to vote for. If a party is on national TV fighting amongst itself, airing dirty laundry, et cetera, there are a certain percentage of voters who will be actively turned off and will either stay home or vote for the other guy.
Third, in addition to those convention-specific problems, there is another cost in that the party cannot begin its general election campaign early. In a typical election cycle, the presumptive nominees are decided in mid-March if not earlier. Thus, the presumptive nominee is able to spend all of the time before the convention (the remainder of March, April, May, June, July, and a large portion of August) fundraising for the general election, running general election ads, getting his name recognition up, lining up the endorsements of political figures and issue groups, building his grassroots network and voter turnout operations, making appearances in battleground states, bashing the other guy, talking about how awesome he is, et cetera. The value of this time should be obvious. This party-building time is particularly important for Republicans this year, however, for two reasons:
(1) They are running against the incumbent President, who will have an advantage in this area no matter who he is; and
(2) The incumbent President they are running against is Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign had the best organization in modern political history.
However, if there is a brokered convention, the candidates instead have to spend all that time actually campaigning in the remaining contests and wheedling with party insiders to get an edge on the secondary ballots that will decide who the nominee is. It should then go without saying that their post-convention organization efforts will be rushed and probably severely deficient.
Fourthly, there is a real risk that a brokered convention, particularly in this year with these candidates, would result in a fracturing of the party that would be very damaging for the general election. In this year, if there is a brokered convention it will almost certainly mean that the conservative base of the party does not want Mitt Romney as its nominee; they will not accept him, and they’re willing to fight all the way through August in an attempt to ensure it doesn’t happen. What would happen, then, if Mitt actually became the nominee at the convention? (As an aside, I think that would be the most likely result; brokered conventions are decided by party insiders and Mitt’s lead with them seems ironclad at this point.) Would conservatives actually turn out for him in November? Would they do the organizational work that’s so vital to success in Presidential elections? Might they even go so far as to support a Gingrich or Santorum third-party candidacy? These are very serious questions that Romney would face.
Likewise, say Santorum became the nominee at a brokered convention. Would moderates, both within the party and outside, be turned off by the hard-right positions he would have had to take to hold conservatives? Would the big-money people, who have been squarely in Romney’s camp, come over to Santorum or work as hard for him as they would Romney?
I think the problem of fracture is particularly more troublesome for Republicans because their general coalition is a rather unstable one. The Reagan Coalition that built the modern Republican party is made up of
(1) Working-class whites who support nativist, protectionist policies designed to protect their industries and jobs from both foreign marketplace competition and immigrant labor competition
(2) The Religious Right, who are primarily concerned with instituting a Christian theocracy and are very concerned with “social” and “culture wars” issues
(3) The Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who favor “pro-business” tax policies, regulatory policies, and labor policies, along with tax breaks for their class of income-earners
(4) Foreign policy conservatives, who want a “strong military” and etc
(5) Libertarians, who just don’t like taxes or laws in general.
There is a widely-held view among political scientists that this coalition is inherently unstable and requires a really strong figure (like Reagan) to hold it together. In this view, the further we get temporally from the memory of Reagan – as invoking his name loses its power – the Republican party becomes more likely to actually disintegrate into a number of small parties. A brokered convention might just be the catalyst that causes this bubbling, barely-below-surface disharmony to boil over and destroy the party in a particularly irreparable way, and we might have decades of Democratic dominance in national politics before there is (A) a figure who can put Humpty Dumpty back together again or (B) a new party can emerge with broad enough appeal to challenge for national supremacy.
For all of the above reasons, I am strongly of the opinion that the Republican establishment will do anything it can to avoid a brokered convention should it sense there’s a real danger of one happening.