Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadlocked, Not Brokered (Is the Kind of Convention We Won't Be Having)

I know: there's just no way I can hope to get people from speculating about a convention in which no candidate enters with 50% plus one of the delegates. And, you know, there's nothing theoretically impossible about it. It could have happened in 1984, if Jesse Jackson had been a bit stronger. It's possible to imagine a left-libertarian candidate running on a platform similar to Gary Johnson's managing to force it in 2008 on the Democratic side. There's good reason why it doesn't happen (the logic of winnowing), and I'm confident that it won't happen this time, but it could.

But please: if you want to speculate about this (and I'm looking at you, Nate Silver), please, please, call it a deadlocked convention. Not a brokered convention. One more time: there are no brokers. Delegates are generally slated by the candidates, and while they are likely to be loyal to those candidates in terms of continuing to support them while they are in the race, there's no particular reason to think that Newt Gingrich, say, could deliver his delegates to another candidate. Nor are there any other organized groups within the party who have that sort of relationship with delegates.

"Brokered" conventions evoke thoughts of the pre-reformed process, when delegate chairs absolutely could deliver their entire delegation; that's because most delegates were selected by and represented state or local formal party organizations. Those formal party organizations in turn might have standing arrangements with party-aligned organized interest groups. The idea was that in general what was important wasn't the individual delegates, but the organized groups which controlled blocks of delegates. Really controlled: in most cases, the delegates were bound by prior arrangement to do whatever the delegation boss wanted. At any rate, again in most cases, bucking the boss would have real consequences within the formal party organization.

That simply isn't the case any more. At best, I suspect that Ron Paul's delegates are probably sufficiently dedicated to him that they would do whatever he asks, but even then I'm not sure...and more to the point, each one would be free to choose whatever he or she wanted to do. No one who is in Tampa for the GOP convention this summer is going to lose their job if they defy the state delegation chair, or in most cases suffer any consequences at all for candidate choice in the (extremely unlikely) even that the convention is thrown open. Other, that is, from whatever consequences come from failing to support the winner, especially if that candidate reaches the White House.

Because of all that, if there ever is a convention in which no candidate enters with 50% plus one of the delegates, the outcome would be not only unpredictable, but presumably quite chaotic. Now, it's possible that some set of party leaders (who? who would accept them as leaders?) could sit down and work out a deal in which they all support a compromise candidate, and it's possible that delegates might choose to accept that conclusion. If so, it would be an individual decision by each delegate. It's also possible that full chaos could break out, with no established procedure for pushing delegates to a consensus, and no one with the authority to force delegates to accept a newly-drafted procedure. Really bad results for the party -- a deadlock lasting weeks, the convention splitting in two with each nominating a different candidate and then fighting over ballot slots, all sorts of ugliness -- would all be very possible. We're also talking about 4000 obscure people (more, in the Democrats' case) who would suddenly be reality TV stars. You want to bet that none of them turn out to be deeply embarrassing to the party?

Anyway, back to the main point. If you really have to speculate about this stuff, and I certainly understand the temptation to do so: it's a deadlocked convention, not a brokered convention. There are no brokers. You can't have a brokered convention without brokers. Deadlocked convention. That's the term you want to use.

23 comments:

  1. Jonathan, how do Super Delegates fit into this whole thing? They are about as close a thing there is to party elites and they certainly traffic amongst one another. I can see a situation where their votes can be "brokered".

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    1. Maybe, maybe not. I mean, if John Boehner told every Member of the House who they had to vote for, would they listen?

      Parties do have the ability to punish pols for various forms of disloyalty, but that presumes that the party is relatively unified and everyone agrees about what counts as disloyalty. That might or might not apply in this case.

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    2. Also keep in mind that "Super delegates" are only on the Democrat side, not on the Republican side. Governors, Senators and so on are not automatic delegates in the GOP.

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    3. Hahaha, the truth of course is a little more complicated. But here's a list of the current republican "superdelegates".

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  2. On Nate Silver pushing the "brokered convention" thing: Silver's projections this cycle have been useful as always, but it's disappointing to see him succumb to "This Time Is Different"-ism. I think 538 was a better read before the move to the NYT -- since then, Silver has seemed much more willing to indulge flights of fancy with little empirical backing. Or maybe he's always been this way but seemed better in 2008 because there were fewer other voices to counter narrative-driven journalistic hype.

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    1. I definitely liked Silver's site more before it moved to NYT, but he always had his strange moments, like when he suggested that Michael Steele was a smart choice for RNC chair. (His statistical argument about Steele's performance as a Senatorial candidate in 2006 was taken apart by several commenters, who pointed out that he did no better than a generic Republican according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index.) We Marylanders knew better from the start, and needless to say, the rest of the nation learned fairly quickly.

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    2. I've been basically unimpressed with everything Silver's done since the Democratic primaries in 2008 that brought him to our attention.

      In those contests he did something that nobody else was doing - he used not only poll averages, but demographic data and the results from previous primaries to predict the outcomes of later primaries. This was really useful, and provided predictions that were much more accurate than simply looking at what the polls were saying.

      Since then, his model has devolved into just a different model of weighted polling averages. It doesn't seem like his track record in predictions in these kinds of contests have really been any different from any other poll agregator.

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  3. How much of the behavior of party elites this year is based on unrealistic ideas about brokered conventions and late entries into the race? Is it possible that GOP leaders are holding off on endorsing anybody because they entertain the fantasies about Mitch Daniels riding in on a white horse that Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin have written about?

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  4. I'd like to suggest looking at the Gingrich candidacy as a hostile takeover of the Republican party by Mr. Adelson. The Republican party is famous at this point as being a party in lockstep agreement, largely separated from the world of facts. It is reinforced by a cultural identity promoted by talk radio and Fox. When a party head, say Sarah Palin, comes up with a line of attack that resonates, say death panels, it is rapidly amplified without concern for whether the position being attacked used to be supported by the party, has any utility, or might be a handy bargaining chip in the future. It's a tremendously powerful messenging machine.

    And with the timely application of ten million dollars, Adelson might be able to hijack it. What does Fox do when the leader of the Republican party belongs to someone else?

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  5. @jonathan - well, I think that analogy is a bit false. Yes, I agree with you that there's no mechanism in place for force anybody to vote against their wish but I suppose I mean to say that broker in the broadest sense of the world, horse trading or whatever you want to call it.

    Also, we mustn't forget that there are high frequencies of groupthink that happens amongst elites that happen less so than amongst regular delegates.

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    1. I do think that groupthink, or some sort of stampede, are very possible. But that's not brokering or horse trading.

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  6. Heh, very true. But to come back to the original point, brokering is also very different than forcing someone to vote for another candidate and I just think that in an environment where there are super delegates who will continue to deal with one another in future elections, trades can still happen.

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  7. Things could get really interesting if the nominee needs Ron Paul delegates to carry the day. The party would probably find a way to prevent this situation, but you never know.

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  8. "Deadlocked" might be better than "brokered," but it still doesn't express what people are really talking about. "Inconclusive primary" might be better -- i.e. the primaries end without any candidate controlling 50% of the delegates. At that point, several weeks of furious jockeying would ensure, and there would certainly be people trying to broker various deals to resolve the impasse pre-convention. If such efforts succeeded, the convention wouldn't be deadlocked at all; it would deliver the nomination on the first ballot. Even so, the extraordinary (and unlikely) scenario that people have in mind when they speak of "brokered conventions" would have occurred. (The phrase "deadlocked" also suggests not just that the opening gavel falls without a clear winner already in view, but that the impasse isn't resolved promptly, that the balloting goes on for a while with no clear movement toward resolution. Again, that's just one of many possibilities that the inconclusive primary might lead to.)

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    1. I agree - "deadlocked" is almost as, potentially more misleading than "brokered," since what people are talking about is a primary process that "deadlocks" and a convention tasked with resolving the resultant impasse. So it's a "deadlocked" process leading to an "open" convention or, in point of fact, an "actual" convention in the old sense - a "deciding" or "empowered" or "meaningful" or "competent" or "plenary" or "deliberating" or "determinative" rehabilitated convention. "Empowered" would at least be understood, but conventions still are formally empowered, so we'd be talking about a "de facto empowered nominating convention," a "true nominating convention...." I think the last one, though a compound, at least reminds people what really would be going on. The lack of an expression is in fact symptomatic of the decline of the institution.

      I'd work harder on coming up with the right term, except the good scientist assures us the effort would be wasted, and I have a speech to catch.

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  9. Technically (and legally) all of the GOP nominating events (primaries, caucuses, conventions) including the National Party conventions are private political party gatherings. As you quite properly noted, the rules and proceedings of the
    National Conventions are technically run by the delegates. Before TV appeared National Party conventions routinely had multiple rounds of contested balloting, in one case over ONE HUNDRED rounds of balloting over a several week period. I would definitely agree that the national parties (especially on the GOP side) have not made any serious preparations for contested balloting at their National conventions for many decades. The assumption (hope, prayer etc) is that any serious "contest" will have been resolved long before the convention.

    I would also think that most GOP delegates ( dedicated party activists) would be totally, 100% disgusted with the idea of selecting a "11th hour secret candidate who was too lazy to file and invest time and resources campaigning like everyone else. The delegates would definitely have the legal right to do so, but it is highly, highly, highly unlikely. Even if the national delegates wanted to support such an "11th hour candidate", the thought of returning home and facing mobs of local "grassroots" with
    pitchforks would almost certainly dissuade them.

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  10. Also I would think in the (extremely, extremely remote) event that the Convention did select an "11th hour" candidate", that candidate may find more opposition from republican activists than democrats, namely because many republican activists would feel that the candidate as well as anyone involved with selecting the candidate was sordidly corrupt.

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  11. You're being overly literal, Jonathan. When most people refer to a "brokered convention", all they mean is a convention where no candidate enters with a majority of delegates and therefore will be the nominee after the first ballot. Probably you're right that "brokered" isn't the right literal term for that in this day and age, but I doubt any of the villagers who are pining for such a convention have really thought about what would happen beyond nobody winning on the first ballot.

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  12. I agree with Prof. Bernstein's central point. I like "deadlocked" better.

    Nonetheless, there's at least one sense in which there could be brokers. As I understand it, candidates choose delegates who have demonstrated immense loyalty. It's just like the electoral college, where we almost never get a "faithless elector" and basically never more than 1. These people are the most loyal of the loyal.

    And because of that, I could definitely see a scenario, if we are going to live in the fantasyland of a deadlocked convention, where, say, Newt Gingrich throws his support to Candidate X and his delegates vote for X because they are loyal to Newt. And he wouldn't need to deliver 100 percent of them; just enough to throw X over the top.

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  13. There is a genuine misunderstanding who the delegates are. People think they're party insiders who have long loyalties to the state or national party. There are some people like that. Probably a majority are.

    In California delegates are chosen from lists submitted by campaigns. The rule out here is that if a candidate wins a congressional district, the 3 delegates on their list go to the convention.Those people can be just anybody.

    I know this because I was one of them in 2008. I'd volunteered on one campaign in my life. I'd contributed very small amounts to only a few candidates. I wouldn't show up on any campaign finance site as a donor. I knew no one involved in the party.

    Yet I was a delegate to the 2008 Republican convention. And it happened by accident. I was a McCain volunteer at a time where they had yet to organize in California. So they didn't have a long slate of volunteers. They did, however, have a list of names of people who'd inquired about volunteering. In order to get on the ballot in California, the McCain people had to submit 3 delegates and 3 alternates in each congressional district. There are districts that got 20,000 Republican primary votes and others that got 200,000. If you don't have people in the heavily Democratic minority majority districts you'll take just about anyone as long as they have the right address and registration.

    You get someone like me.

    If I'm a delegate again I'll vote for whoever put me there. I don't care if the "party base" prefers some new candidate. I'm there because the people of my congressional district chose him as their Presidential nominee. I'd do the same in every ballot until he asked me not to. That's even if I like another candidate better.

    I'd be reluctant to vote for anyone who hasn't competed in the primaries. He wouldn't be approved by the Republican voters and come across as someone who the party imposes. I'm not sure how many delegates are like me, but since the names are submitted by the candidates I'm sure they try to maximize that number.

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  14. I was a Dean delegate at the 2004 DNC and in that case Howard Dean asked us to vote for Kerry in a sign of unity which most all of us did. So there is still an ability for candidates to deliver their delegates. The big wild card this time however is time itself. In the old days the delegates were party insiders who could afford to take weeks to come to a conclusion. Today the delegates are likely common people with real jobs who are paying their own hotel bills and who have non-refundable tickets to fly home. So either everyone will vote for a single candidate at the last minute just to be able to go home or even worse they will leave anyway and there won't be enough delegates left to put anyone over the top. IMHO the latter is the real disaster scenario and I really don't know what could be done in that situation.

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  15. I have to chuckle about how much time the blogger spends trying to distinguish between brokered and deadlocked. A waste. The 'concept' of a brokered convention is that no candidate comes into it with enough delegate votes to win and no candidate is just shy of the required number. That means that an eventual candidate, because the party will indeed eventually select a candidate, will emerge through the give and take of bargaining, negotiating, horse trading and the like. In this scenario, not each delegate would be directly involved in the negotiating. There would, indeed, be brokers. But let's move on to content!

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  16. Dems legal team should not snooze about how the always nefarious GOP will try to put up Jeb Bush...he's written in the WSJ recently, his name has been out there (google him under news)and he would be brought to you the same way he, "little brother" brought the Presidency to his brother GWB. Karl Rove would swoon. It must not ever happen, so Dems should be prepared. Just sayin'.

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