When the Party’s Over: Part I

by | Mar 9, 2016 | Faith & Politics

The GOP Establishment doesn’t want Donald Trump to be the nominee. But is there anything they can do about it? And what happens to the Republican party?

It is possible that Trump will be the nominee. With 384 delegates, he is on track to claim the 1237 total he needs to win the nomination. Indeed, he may only gain momentum as we enter the winner-take-all primary season.

Trump’s victory, however, is not inevitable. There is a divided field, and it has been an unpredictable race. He could easily come close to, and yet fall short of, 1237.

If such is the case, the party must decide. And at this point, their decision would likely come at a brokered convention. This election season is thus a great time to raise questions about the purpose of political parties in U.S. politics.

What, Pray Tell, Is a Brokered Convention?

A brokered convention is one in which no candidate has secured a majority of the delegates by the time of the convention. When the first ballot registers this fact, the convention is officially “brokered”.

Under current GOP rules, delegates of most states must vote for the candidate who won their support at their state primary or caucus. After the first ballot, however, delegates begin to gain freedom in choosing for whom to vote. With the second ballot, 55% of delegates are free to vote for whomever they choose. With the third, 85% are. This is where the wheeling and dealing sets in, and where the party could direct support toward their desired candidate. If you have been following the spectacular new season of House of Cards, you saw this pulled off in spectacular fashion.

Speaking of House of Cards, one more detail remains. The first business of the convention is to set its own rules. Is there a way for the rules committee to tinker with procedures in favor of insurgents against Trump? Perhaps. But throughout all of this, the party must dance delicately. Which is the bigger risk? Alienating that part of the GOP base enamored of Trump, or sacrificing the support of Trump-favoring independents (and much of the base itself)?

Part of this risk calculation would involve assessing the probability that the party actually could get what it wants: Can the party coalesce around a candidate? Can they muster resources to overwhelm the support of someone like Trump? These are questions that only time can answer.

Who Decides?  The People or the Party?

Would a brokered convention be some grand treason against democracy? No. And for two reasons.

First, if no single candidate holds a majority of the delegates going into the convention, then it is the responsibility of the convention to decide who advances to the general election. What would a brokered convention look like? It’s hard to say: no convention has had to make a real decision in decades. For the GOP, in fact, the last brokered convention was in 1948. Some will remember the threat of a brokered convention brought on by Ronald Reagan’s 1976 attempt to topple Gerald Ford, who would go on to lose to Jimmy Carter. And Democrats will remember the chaos of 1968.

Second, the conventions are a party affair, as is the primary system itself. It is the job of the party to select its candidate. Who is the “party”? It is the officials who govern the organization, the elected officials who hold office, and the rank-and-file members in the electorate. The question asked by many in recent years is whether each part of the party has a distinct and important role to play.

While many Democrats have complained about the undemocratic role of super-delegates in their party, they have only to look to the other side of the aisle to see what happens when the party no longer influences the selection process. After all, the purpose of a political party is to win elections, or to “capture government,” in political science jargon. Trump is so dangerous to the GOP not only because he has attracted such a large following, but because it is far from clear that his following is big enough to win an election. Even if Trump does win the general election, it is also far from clear whether his questionable conservatism will be good for the GOP’s ideology brand into the future.

GOP CandidatesFor all the animus against the party “Establishment,” the GOP elite looks pretty ineffectual these days. The party has been unable to secure victories for its preferred candidate, unable to rally around its putative second-choice, and unable to prevent the advance of two of its worst nightmares. As Hans Noel notes, these failures are of a piece with the GOP’s difficulties in replacing John Boehner as Speaker of the House. But does the party simply lack the tools to participate robustly in contemporary politics? An open convention in 2016 would go a long way toward answering that question.

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Let’s say that Trump does win 1237 delegates by the summer, or he survives a brokered convention. What then?  Stay tuned for part two of Bill McCormick’s analysis, which will be posted on Monday, March 14.


Title image by Stephen Baines available here on Flickr.
Caricature image by DonkeyHotey available here on Flickr.


Bill McCormick, SJ

bmccormicksj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Bill