A brokered convention takes place when no one candidate wins a majority delegates during the presidential primary to earn their party’s nomination in the first vote at the nominating conference. When that happens, the nomination is “brokered,” or determined through horse trading and backroom deals.
Brokered conventions, also called deliberative or contested conventions, were the norm in the United States until the second half of the 20th century. At that time, party “bosses” wielded enormous power, and candidates were often chosen after hours of deal-making in smoke-filled rooms. Warren G. Harding, for example, was famously selected to be the Republican presidential candidate after a series of conclaves by party leaders. And in 1924, Democratic delegates took 103 ballots to select the little-known candidate John Davis.
The most recent brokered convention was the Democratic convention of 1952, from which Adlai Stevenson emerged as the winner. In 1948, the Republican party held a brokered convention and selected Thomas Dewey as the party’s candidate.
By 1972, almost every state in the union had established either a primary election or a caucus system, making it possible for voters to choose the candidate they wanted to run for their party. The brokered convention became irrelevant, since primary votes and caucuses meant that there was always a clear frontrunner by the time a party held its political convention. Both of the major political parties also allow candidates to win the nomination with a simple majority, rather than a two thirds majority; this makes it easier to determine a frontrunner as well.
Analysts have also pointed out that the cost of modern elections, and the 24-hour news cycle, also means that all but the most popular candidates will drop out before they get to the convention. As a result, the winner is always clear by the time a party holds its political convention. As a result, modern political conventions are often viewed as spectacles, rather than as formative political events.
At the same time, pundits and political junkies still love to talk about the possibility of a brokered convention. In 2016, there was a lot of speculation that Republicans might have a brokered convention. The speculation largely grew out of the idea that Republican leaders wanted to “stop” Donald Trump from winning the party’s nomination to the presidency and were troubled by signs that “favorite sons” like Jeb Bush were losing out to Trump. In the event, the Republican convention was not brokered.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, many wondered whether the Democrats would have a “contested,” or brokered convention. Analysts have pointed out that Democrats are under heightened pressure to find a candidate who can defeat President Trump. It’s also possible that “superdelegates,” who are automatically made delegates because of their positions, could sway the outcome of the Democratic convention. Senator Bernie Sanders has said that it would be a “very divisive moment” if the candidate with a plurality of votes does not win the party’s presidential nomination.
But often a brokered convention is mostly just a political junkie’s fantasy. The modern party primary system almost always determines an overwhelming winner of delegates. And as David Frum notes, it’s hard to imagine a “brokered convention” when there is no such thing as political “brokers” any more. Elected delegates to a convention aren’t going to be swayed by political leaders deciding the nominee in a backroom.
A brokered convention was portrayed in the film The Best Man starring Henry Fonda.