Are the Democratic and Republican nominations finally settled? Not if you listen to all the talk about “open conventions” and “brokered conventions.” The idea is that delegates selected through state primaries and caucuses then choose any nominee they want at the national convocation. A brokered convention? That would require power brokers. The problem is that power brokers no longer have any power to broker.
After Tuesday’s primaries, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks certain and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump very likely to win their parties’ nominations on the first ballot. Their opponents are relying on the out-of-date assumption that convention delegates are free agents who can nominate anybody they want.
Technically, they are. Especially if no candidate wins a majority on the first convention ballot. Politically, it’s poppycock. And has been since 1972, when the choice of nominees was turned over to ordinary voters after the uproar over the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic convention. Humphrey did not run in a single primary that year.
Before 1972, conventions delegates were mostly controlled by local and state party bosses. Like the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Presidential primaries were basically advisory. When John F. Kennedy defeated Humphrey in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary, the young senator from Massachusetts proved to nervous party bosses that a Roman Catholic could win Protestant votes.
Want to see what a brokered convention looks like? Watch “The Best Man,” a 1964 movie based on a play by Gore Vidal. The behind-the-scenes deals and machinations look so outdated the actors might as well be wearing powdered wigs.
The wave of reforms after 1968 gave primary voters the power to choose nominees. Party conventions became electoral colleges. The delegates are there to register the preferences of the voters back home. They are politicians, remember, and they dare not betray their constituents.
These days, political conventions have become “infotainment” — televised pep rallies for the nominee. Delegates are props. Trump called the 2012 Republican convention “the single most boring convention I’ve ever seen.” He is promising to put “more showbiz” into this year’s convention. Better even than Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
Trump’s opponents don’t like to talk about a “brokered convention.” They prefer to call for an “open convention.” Sounds more democratic. Reince Priebus, the national chairman of the Republican Party, claims delegates can ignore the primary vote and nominate whoever they want: “This is a nomination for the Republican Party. If you don’t like the party, then sit down. The party is choosing a nominee.”
Really? The rule in American politics is that once the people have power, you can’t take it away from them. By almost two to one in the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans say the convention should nominate the candidate with the largest number of primary votes rather than the one delegates believe would be “the best party standard-bearer.”
Last month, a member of the Republican rules committee wrote a letter to national committee members arguing, “Every delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention is a completely free agent, free to vote for the candidate of their choice on every ballot of the convention in Cleveland in July.”
The response was immediate. Several RNC members began a petition drive stating, “When We the People are told our vote does not count by a party official, then that official does not support the will of We the People . . . and therefore should be removed from their position.” Off with his head!
Trump argues that if he ends up with more primary votes than any other candidate, it would be outrageous for delegates to nominate a candidate who ends up with fewer votes. Democrats did that in 1968, and the result was chaos and political disaster.
Last month, Trump said that if the Republican Party tries to have a brokered convention in July, “I think you’d have riots.” It was a warning shot to party leaders. And a dog whistle to Trump supporters.
Trump’s position is that convention delegates must respect the will of the voters and not act as independent agents. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is promoting the opposite agenda. He has no hope of winning a first-ballot majority of pledged Democratic delegates. He hopes to win over “superdelegates,” who could try to reverse the wishes of the primary voters.
Fifteen percent of the Democratic delegates are superdelegates. They can vote for anyone they wish. Right now, most of them are supporting Clinton. Since superdelegates are almost all party officials, they do not want to risk defying the will of the voters. The safest course for superdelegates is to ratify the Democratic primary vote.
For Republicans, the choice is tougher according to the latest polling. Either they can nominate Trump and lose. Or they can nominate someone else and Trump will make sure they lose.