Given all the recent media buzz about the possibility of a brokered convention this year (2020) I thought I would put a little historical thread together.
A brokered convention occurs when a party's nominee is not selected by a majority in the first round of delegate voting at the party's nominating convention. Most delegates are then permitted to vote for whichever candidate they choose, allowing for input from party leadership and political maneuvering. Additional votes are taken until a majority is reached. For this reason, brokered conventions are also known as multiple ballot or multi-ballot conventions.
The term brokered convention is sometimes used interchangeably with contested convention. The latter refers to a nominating convention that opens without one candidate having captured a majority of delegates. A contested convention may be resolved on the first ballot once uncommitted delegates are factored in.
When delegates were selected by local party leadership, rather than by the outcome of state primaries and caucuses, brokered conventions were a regular feature of the political process. For example, the Republican Party went through 36 ballots before it selected James A. Garfield as its nominee in 1880. The longest brokered convention occurred in 1924, when Democrats took 16 days and 103 ballots to nominate diplomat John W. Davis.
As technology enabled easier communication between politicians and party insiders and the rules of delegate allocation changed (in the 1960s), the importance of the brokered convention dwindled. The last brokered convention occurred in 1952 when Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson after three ballots. Four years earlier, the Republican Party nominated Thomas Dewey in its final brokered convention.
National conventions became, primarily, a ceremonial event since it was possible for a candidate to secure a majority of delegates through primaries and pledged superdelegates prior to the event. Nevertheless, the possibility of a brokered convention is still regularly invoked in close primary contests.
The (1972) convention nominated Senator George McGovern of South Dakota for president and Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri for vice president. Eagleton withdrew from the race just 19 days later after it was disclosed that he had previously undergone mental health treatment, including electroshock therapy, and he was replaced on the ballot by Sargent Shriver of Maryland, a Kennedy in-law.
The convention, which has been described as "a disastrous start to the general election campaign", was one of the most unusual—perhaps the most contentious in the history of the Democratic Party since 1924—with sessions beginning in the early evening and lasting until sunrise the next morning. Previously excluded political activists gained influence at the expense of elected officials and traditional core Democratic constituencies such as organized labor. A protracted vice presidential nominating process delayed McGovern's acceptance speech (which he considered "the best speech of his life") until 2:48 a.m.—after most television viewers had gone to bed. Hunter S. Thompson covered this convention in detail in several articles and in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.
The 1972 convention was significant as the first implementation of the reforms set by the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, which McGovern himself had chaired before deciding to run for president. After McGovern resigned from his position as chair, he was replaced as chair by U.S. Representative Donald Fraser, which gave the McGovern–Fraser Commission its name. The 28-member commission was established after the tumultuous 1968 convention.
The commission set guidelines ordering state parties to "adopt explicit written Party rules governing delegate selection" and implemented eight "procedural rules and safeguards", including the prohibition of proxy voting, the end of the unit rule (winner-take-all primaries) and related practices such as instructing delegations, a new quorum requirement of not less than 40% at all party committee meetings, the removal of all mandatory assessments of delegates and the cap of mandatory participation fees at $10. In addition, there were new rules ensuring that party meetings in non-rural areas were held on uniform dates, at uniform times, and in places of easy access and that adequate public notice of all party meetings concerned with delegate selection was posted. Among the most significant of the changes were new quotas mandating that certain percentages of delegates be women or members of minority groups.
We can see that the reforms enacted for 1972 were important in allowing the anti-war activist Senator George McGovern of South Dakota to win the nomination. Unfortunately, the chaotic convention, and McGovern’s highly problematic initial pick of Thomas Eagleton as his Vice Presidential nominee, helped Richard Nixon to be re-elected, despite the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War. McGovern was also too far ahead of his time in advocating for welfare reforms that now remind me of the UBI proposals.
Today, super-delegates remain as a vestige of a time when political party bosses selected a party’s nominee. As the first article I cied above noted, sometimes many ballots would be cast before a winner was finally settled upon. These were not necessarily such a bad thing as newspapers of the time would presumably report on the ultimate winners without necessarily dwelling too much on what kinds of back room deals and negotiations might have taken place. Today, such brokered conventions are the stuff of nightmares as many party leaders recognize that such a chaotic process makes for bad television. Much better to have the convention serve a more ceremonial purpose. One in which nominating and acceptance speeches can help to unify a party behind a single candidate and put a best foot forward to the general public.