Donald Trump is expected to win the Republican primary in Michigan, one of the largest states in the country, Tuesday night. By the middle of next week, given his leads in Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina and maybe Ohio, Trump could have half of the delegates he'll need to secure the party's presidential nomination.
With Trump sucking up delegates throughout the country, the establishment wing of the Republican party is increasingly relying on the possibility of a brokered or contested convention to prevent him from becoming their nominee. Two of the four remaining candidates for the Republican nomination are openly planning their campaigns around it, while party leaders have been preparing for the scenario since December.
So what the hell is a brokered convention?
First, "brokered convention" is a passé term for reasons that we'll explain below. We call them "contested conventions" now. It's a phenomenon in US politics in which no candidate enters their party's nominating convention with enough delegates to win and there's a massive floor fight to decide the winner.
Republicans need 1,237 delegates to get the nomination this year. If by the time the convention rolls around in July, none of the candidates has reached that threshold (a possibility, though a small one), they could force the first contested convention since 1952.
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In a contested convention, the process begins as it usually does, with every state announcing which candidate they support. This is usually a quirky but meaningless piece of political theater as everyone in the convention hall and those watching at home already know who the nominee is. It's kind of like the parade of nations at Olympic opening ceremonies, a scripted exercise with nothing surprising happening. Each state gets to select a speaker to talk about how great said state and its citizens are before finally announcing who they voted for months ago.
In a contested convention, this is just step one. After the first vote, some of the party's delegates will be "released" from supporting whoever their state supported and can switch to whichever campaign they please. In between votes, the candidates and their campaigns work the phones and press the flesh on the convention floor, making promises to opponents and their supporters to get them to change their votes on the next ballot. Some candidates may see the writing on the wall and drop out, either asking their delegates to support an opponent or leaving them to make up their own minds. This process continues, with more delegates freeing up during each round depending on state rules, until one candidate has the delegates needed to nab the nomination.
During a contested convention, the nomination is completely open to whoever can amass the delegates required. That means any of the candidates who made it to the convention in July, but also those who dropped out of the race early or even a candidate who didn't run in the primaries, could make a bid for the nomination, at least in theory. Those latter two scenarios are even less likely than a contested nomination — which, let's repeat, is pretty unlikely.
For starters, any candidate aside from Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, who is currently running in second place, has one big problem: GOP rules. The party requires that any candidate for the nomination has already won a majority of delegates in at least eight states. So far, only Trump has done that. Those rules can be changed, however, depending on how worried the party gets about the candidates remaining once the convention in Cleveland rolls around.
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And there has been a lot of speculation recently that such a rule change could happen, given the party's distaste for both Trump and Cruz.
NBC's Chuck Todd actually asked Mitt Romney on "Meet the Press" last weekend whether he'd accept the nomination for a second time if his name was put forward on the convention floor. Romney, who railed against Trump last in week in a speech in Utah but hasn't yet endorsed anybody in the race, didn't close the door on that unlikely possibility.
"I can't imagine anything like that happening. And I don't think anyone in our party should say, 'Oh no, even if the people in the party wanted me to be the president I would say no to it.' No one's going to say that," Romney said. "But I can tell you this, I'm not a candidate, I'm not going to be a candidate, I'm going to be endorsing one of the people who's running for president."
Why are we hearing about this now?
As with most questions in the 2016 presidential election, the answer is simply Donald Trump.
Republican party leaders don't like Trump and are terrified of what his nomination could do to the party, not to mention what having him at the top of the ticket in 2016 could mean for vulnerable Republican members running for Congress, governor and other races. The Washington Post reported in December that party elites including Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were already meeting to discuss how to use a contested convention to prevent Trump from winning the nomination should he continue to lead in the primaries. And he has.
Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich are so far behind in the delegate count right now that barring an incredible surge by either candidate in the remaining primaries and caucuses, they'll need a contested convention to have any chance at winning. Rubio's campaign manager laid out the strategy for winning at the Cleveland convention during a meeting with high-dollar donors this month, according to Politico.
And Romney actually called on voters to force a contested convention during his anti-Trump tirade last week. Hoping to keep Trump from reaching the magic number — 1,237 — that would hand him the nomination outright, Romney advised voters: "I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state."
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There's also the media side of this equation. The press and politics nerds would be thrilled to watch a contested convention.
Usually, conventions are lengthy and tedious events that serve as little more than hour-long campaign ads for the respective party's nominees for a few nights on live television. They're so boring that for the last several presidential election years, the networks have been cutting down their coverage from wall-to-wall in the 1950s to a measly one hour per night in 2012.
In a contested convention, thousands of delegates would be on the floor voting through multiple rounds for a nominee as the candidates duke it out to win states to their side. What could be more fun for political journalists — or more beneficial to their employers' ratings?
So what's the problem?
Well, it depends on who you ask. For Trump, the answer is obvious. But many Republican voters don't seem to be too happy about this scenario either.
A contested convention designed to defeat Trump would likely mean overturning the votes of a majority of Republicans in order to select someone else as the party's nominee. These decisions used to be made by party power brokers (thus that old school term, "brokered convention") who could sway entire delegations based on promises made to them by the various campaigns, often in the old days in literal "smoke-filled rooms". That process has changed, but the decision to switch allegiances will still be made by convention delegates, not necessarily by the voters they represent. To many, that doesn't feel like democracy.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC, an annual gathering of some of the party's most conservative activists and voters, last week, the crowd repeatedly booed Priebus, the Republican Party chairman, for merely answering a question about what the party's rules dictate a contested convention would look like. Priebus emphasized repeatedly, however, that "the odds of a contested convention are very small," and put them at 10-15 percent.
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Contested conventions are generally terrible for the party. If Republicans move to usurp the nomination from the highest-vote-getter in July, presumably Trump, it could cause huge backlash among his supporters. And, if CPAC is any indication, even Trump haters don't like the idea of seeing the so-called "establishment" mess with the desires of voters.
Would it work?
Maybe. Convention delegations are often packed with members of Congress, high-power donors and the very Washington establishment-types Trump has spent this campaign attacking. It won't take much for many of these delegates to move from the Donald's campaign to a ticket they see as more friendly to their interests.
These same delegates don't like Cruz any more than they like Trump, so the beneficiary of that movement would seem to be either Rubio or Kasich. But don't just expect them to leap from Cruz or Trump to safer bets either. These party leaders and influencers have to keep something else in mind: pissing off the electorate. For them, the calculus will be centered around two bad options. Do they want to allow a potential President Trump, or worse lose the presidential election again with a nominee they don't trust? Or do they want to alienate some of the party's most active and consistent voters by overriding their choice and selecting a safer nominee?
Cruz has warned the GOP of dire consequences if they try it.
"If a bunch of Washington deal-makers try to step in in a brokered convention and steal the nomination, I think we will have a manifest uprising," Cruz said on Face the Nation last week. "If you want to beat Donald Trump, and I don't think Donald Trump is the right nominee to go up against Hillary Clinton, if you want to beat him, you've got to beat him at the ballot box. And our campaign is the only campaign that has demonstrated we can do so over and over."
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Trump doesn't expect a contested convention to play out well for his campaign. He told the Washington Post in December that he didn't expect a contested convention to happen, but he didn't like his odds if it does.
"I'll be disadvantaged," Trump told the Post. "The dealmaking, that's my advantage. My disadvantage is that I'd be going up against guys who grew up with each other, who know each other intimately, and I don't know who they are, okay? That's a big disadvantage… These kind of guys stay close. They all know each other. They want each other to win."
Will it happen?
A contested convention certainly looks more likely for Republicans this year than it has in a while. But historically, the odds of it happening are slim. The parties have come close to contested conventions many times since 1952, including in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford at the convention. But none of those contests have moved past the first ballot.
The media and party bosses have been talking about the possibility of a contested convention with this kind of fervor in all three of the most recent presidential races only to wind up with the same, boring nominating conventions. Voters, and candidates, typically make up their minds before nominating day.
As with all zany political possibilities, there's an episode of the West Wing about this very phenomenon (though we'll warn you it's from the panned sixth season). All of the usual caveats about fictional TV shows over-simplifying and over-dramatizing apply. But: It's streaming on Netflix, and you should watch it if nothing else because if there's ever been a year when political fiction has been consistently turning it into political reality, that year is 2016.
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