How a Brokered GOP Convention Would Work

The day after Donald Trump won four out of five states in the March 15 primaries, the conversation turned once again to how Republican insiders might force a brokered GOP convention in Cleveland—or if they'd even want to.

Wait, what's a "brokered convention"?

A brokered convention occurs when no candidate has secured a majority of delegates. The nomination is then decided at the national convention through negotiations and successive rounds of voting. A brokered convention is very rare—the last one occurred 40 years ago:

The 1976 Republican National Convention

The last brokered GOP convention was in 1976 when Gerald Ford arrived in Kansas City with a slight lead in delegates, but not a majority. Ronald Reagan opposed him. Ford, who had succeeded Nixon two years earlier when Nixon resigned, was running for his first full term as President. Ford was able to secure enough support on the first ballot to win the Republican nomination with only minor controversy. However, Ford ended up losing to Jimmy Carter in the general election.

A brokered convention today, while dramatic for the 24-hour news cycle, would be a disaster for the Republican Party.

But, this is not 1976 and times have changed. A brokered convention today, while dramatic for the 24-hour news cycle, would be a disaster for the Republican Party. The take-no-prisoner campaign style that has evolved since the gentler days of the 1970’s would create long-lasting wounds that would make for a bittersweet victory for anyone other than Donald Trump.

The magic number: 1,237 delegates

Let’s look at what would trigger a brokered convention and how would it work? First, it’s all about math. In order to secure the GOP nomination, a nominee needs to win at least 1,237 delegates, one more than half of the 2,472 total delegates. If any one candidate arrives in Cleveland with 1,237 delegates, then it's game over, and everyone gets on with the business of putting on a show to kick off the campaign.

After March 15, the delegate count stands like this:

Trump: 673 won, 614 more needed

Cruz: 411 won, 826 more needed

Kasich: 143 won, 1094 more needed
(It's now impossible for Kasich to reach 1,237)

Donald Trump needs to win 57% of the remaining delegates to arrive in Cleveland with the nomination in hand. Certainly doable based on how he’s done so far, but perhaps not a sure thing. The climb to reaching enough delegates to win is much steeper for Ted Cruz, who would need to win 83% of the remaining delegates, and impossible for John Kasich. If you want to follow the count as the campaign progresses check out the Delegate Calculator at The New York Times website.

It is now impossible for Kasich to reach 1,237 delegates

While the popular vote is not used directly to determine the nominee, it is an important piece of the puzzle. With more than half of the state primaries completed, Trump leads the popular vote by 7.5 million votes compared to Cruz with 5.5 million and Kasich with 2.7 million.

However, if Trump is unable to get enough delegates before the convention, a brokered convention becomes a possibility. That is when things would get very interesting and very tricky for the Republicans. USA TODAY walks us through what they call “a political junkie’s dream – and the GOP’s nightmare:”

But if no one wins 1,237 delegates after the first vote in Cleveland, then delegates become free agents. The contenders would engage in a fierce lobbying battle for delegates, wooing them with ideological sweet talk, political promises, and anything else they have to offer. There would be a second round of voting — and possibly more — until one candidate snagged a majority.

If Trump or Cruz is close to the magic number, they can try to convince some of uncommitted 168 ‘super delegates’ to support their candidacy. However, these ‘super delegates’ are required to vote for the candidate that won their state primary on the first ballot, so the ability to horse trade is limited. In play also, would be the 169 delegates that Marco Rubio won before he suspended his campaign. With regard to what happens to Rubio’s delegates, Fox News tell us, “The short answer is: It varies from state to state, but the Republican Party leaves enough wiggle room that the delegates of former candidates could end up being a factor in July.”

To further complicate matters the GOP has something called Rule 40(b) which was ironically created by the Romney campaign in 2012 to stop Ron Paul. 

If no one gets a majority of votes on the first ballot, then there is a second vote where a majority of the delegates (57%) become free agents and can vote for whoever they wish. If the second round fails to produce a winner, then there is the third round of voting where 81% of the delegates become free agents. The New York Times has a helpful chart that outlines exactly when delegates become free agents and how the balloting would work.

To further complicate matters the GOP has something called Rule 40(b) which was ironically created by the Romney campaign in 2012 to stop Ron Paul. As explained by The Washington Post, Rule 40(b) requires that to be considered for the nomination a candidate must have a won a majority of delegates (not just a plurality) in at least eight states. Trump is the only candidate that has already met that threshold. Ted Cruz would need to win a majority of the delegates in four more states to qualify, and John Kasich needs seven. The GOP rules committee could change Rule 40(b) at the convention, but changing the rules after the game is over creates a bad image.

In spite of the hopes of the old-line GOP establishment, a brokered convention is highly unlikely to happen. The outcry from Trump supporters would be deafening and would tear the Party apart. Donald Trump would not go quietly into the night. Trump warned the GOP of the consequences of his being denied the nomination in a CNN interview where he said, "I think you'd have riots. I think you'd have riots. I'm representing a tremendous many, many millions of people."

Nominating anyone other than Trump or Cruz would be a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP.

The only viable alternative to Trump, in terms of delegates and votes, is Ted Cruz, who has won 411 delegates. But the Republican establishment dislikes Cruz just about as much as they dislike Donald Trump. Cruz, who has built his career on being “anti-establishment,” would likely complain just as loudly as Trump if the Party attempted to ignore the voters and nominate someone like Kasich or Romney or Rubio or Bush. Nominating anyone other than Trump or Cruz would be a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP.

But even if Trump does not arrive in Cleveland with a majority of delegates the odds are against a brokered convention. To understand why take a look at Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. Trump views running for the presidency in the same way that he sees closing a business deal. Everything is negotiable to Donald Trump and before a brokered convention happens, he will make a deal to the secure the nomination.

To Donald Trump, politics are not personal, it’s just business and long before the Party gathers in Cleveland Donald Trump will have made the deal.

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