Picture, if you will, the three Republicans leading the race for presidential nominee: There’s Donald Trump, a tuna salad sandwich with a white supremacist problem (because, it turns out, when you blow that racism dog whistle, you’re going to get a bunch of racists following behind your truck. Who knew?). There’s Ted Cruz, who is Going to Dismantle the IRS, or not, because Ted Cruz would say anything — anything — to win voters, and is a week away from promising us all a puppy if we’re very, very good. And there’s Marco Rubio, who is beloved by the same residents of Northern Virginia who talk about Alexandria like it’s a center of civilization akin to Hong Kong ("Our Whole Foods is uniquely diverse!").
Now picture these three men, along with their surrogates and their supporters and their worst enemies, gathered all in one place, with no single candidate possessing the 1,237 delegates needed to hold a simple majority and secure the Republican nomination.
Cleveland, July, 2016. The Republican National Convention.
That’s right. Brokered convention time.
A brokered convention occurs when no single candidate has achieved the required simple majority of delegates necessary before the first official vote for a political party’s presidential nomination. It hasn’t happened since 1952. Since then, we’ve entered most party conventions with a clear front-runner.* But if neither Cruz nor Rubio drops out, and the Republican Party really, really doesn’t want to have Donald "Who is this 'David Duke' fellow again?" Trump as its nominee for president, the front-runner might not have the delegates necessary to secure a run for the White House — and, hypothetically, could lose the nomination in Cleveland.
Let’s imagine how things could play out. Say, hypothetically, that the candidates get to Cleveland and Trump hasn’t yet gained a majority of Republican delegates during the primaries (and neither Rubio nor Cruz has given up). The delegates at the convention take the first vote for who the nominee should be on the floor; if after that Trump still hasn’t achieved the necessary number of votes, the delegates vote again. And again. And again.**
And let’s say, eventually, Rubio and Cruz meet in some tunnel underneath the Quicken Loans Arena, where they decide that Rubio will throw his support — and his delegates — behind Cruz. Or Mitt Romney shows up. Again, this isn’t very likely, but it is possible; in the 1952 Democratic convention, the eventual nominee chosen — Adlai Stevenson — wasn’t even running at the beginning of the convention. It’s chaos.
Would this be good for the Republican Party? No. A brokered convention is vaguely medieval, like bloodletting, and just as bad an idea. Telling Trump supporters, who already can’t stand the Republican establishment, that the entrenched powers are going to take away their nominee and nominate a GOP favorite instead (Rubio, Cruz, Paul Ryan, a hand puppet, whomever) will end poorly. Really poorly. To put it in perspective, imagine if the Democratic nomination went to neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders, but to, like, John Kerry, who just happened to be at the convention, eating a hot dog. That would not go well.
If we’ve learned anything from the Trump phenomenon, it’s that, if you ask Trump supporters, the GOP vanguard has let down the GOP base. Leadership promised to get tough on immigration; to stand up for blue-collar white workers; protect employees and small business owners; and eliminate the Affordable Care Act because… uh… hang on, let me look up what Heritage said about it… ah, yes, it puts control of health care in the hands of "Washington bureaucrats." To date, it has accomplished none of this. Now, in Trump supporters’ eyes, the GOP leadership are those same "Washington bureaucrats," and they might want to take away the one candidate Trump voters believe is speaking for them. The party would be nominating someone whom the party’s voters did not want — and whether that decision were to result in a Trump third-party candidacy or not, the GOP would suffer. The ramifications could impact House and Senate races nationwide as voters rebel by not voting along party lines, or by not voting at all.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on Tuesday night, "Are you saying that a party can actually nominate someone who is not the leader in the primaries?" The answer is yes. And, as DeLay replied, "If that someone does not have 1,237 delegates heading into the convention, then all hell could break loose."
Guys, this could happen. In 64 years, it has not happened, and in 2016, it could actually, really happen. This is going to — OK, could — be absolutely bananas. There would be furious white people everywhere. Social media would consist entirely of hydrogen bombs of truth posted by your mom’s weird cousin.
There’s a subsection of the American population that passes the time by thinking its way through political-science scenarios like "what if the president and vice president resigned but the president pro tempore was a ferret?" This is kind of like that, but no ferrets (yet). Just a political scenario most Americans have never witnessed.
So, buckle up, my fellow political ferret-ponderers. Ride strong. We’re in for one memorable summer.
*We’ve come close: most recently when Walter Mondale and Gary Hart went into the 1984 Democratic convention without a nominee having been decided in the primaries. Incidentally, the Mondale-Hart contest was largely decided by Walter Mondale quoting a Wendy’s ad at Gary Hart. This is the same Gary Hart whose political career was torpedoed when the National Enquirer published photos of Hart holding a woman named Donna Rice while on a boat called Monkey Business. The 1980s!
**The record is 103 ballots in 1924. The convention took more than two weeks. That would be bad.