If there’s one thing that gets US political geeks fired up, it’s the prospect of there being a brokered convention to choose a party’s Presidential nominee. Every four years, professional and amateur pundits look over the field of candidates and proclaim that there’s no way someone is going to get 50% of the delegates and seal the nomination, leading to a brokered convention where the nominee only emerges after a series of ballots. Every four years, these predictions are then scattered to the winds as each party manages to find a nominee who can do just that, and the pundits go back to watching their West Wing series 6 DVDs to get their brokered convention fix.
Hopes were high that this year’s massive Republican field would finally lead to a brokered convention. Surely having so many candidates with so many varied appeals to the electorate would prevent any front runner emerging, leaving the final decision to be made in Cleveland in July where headline writers were waiting to unleash multiple variations on ‘the mistake on the lake‘. Normal service, however, appeared to have resumed with Donald Trump rising from the field and winning a series of primary victories including taking the most states in yesterday’s Super Tuesday primaries.
Unlike his predecessors who emerged from the field to claim a hotly contested nomination (Mitt Romney and John McCain are the most recent examples), the rise of Trump has not been welcomed by the Republican leadership, with various parts of the Republican elite looking to find a candidate to stop him. While there are three remaining anti-Trump candidates in the race – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – they face a collective action problem where all would agree that a single non-Trump candidate would be best for the party, but all believe that the other two should drop out and back them.
This problem is compounded by the structure of the Republican primaries. Up to now, delegate allocation in them has been principally proportional according to the share of the vote received, so while Trump has won the most contests, he doesn’t hold a commanding lead in total delegates. (Electoral Vote currently give Trump 332 of the 1237 needed for the nomination while Cruz has 221, Rubio 122, Kasich 27 and Ben Carson 8) From March 15th, however, most states allocate delegates by a winner-takes-all method. As repeated British elections have shown, getting around 40% of the vote when your opponents are split is a very good way to take advantage of a winner-takes-all system. If no single ‘Stop Trump’ candidate emerges by then, the conventional wisdom goes, Trump will be able to mop up swathes of delegates by exploiting his rivals’ division and secure himself the nomination.
There is perhaps a way for the Republicans to avoid a Trump nomination from this position, but it would require them to embrace the idea of a brokered convention occurring. If none of Cruz, Rubio or Kasich can be persuaded to withdraw, they could instead agree a non-aggression and non-competition pact instead. Previous results and polling show that each of them has the potential to defeat Trump in different states, so the best option for them is to tacitly endorse Stop Trump voting. For instance, just as Cruz was able to defeat Trump in his home state of Texas, Rubio can beat him in Florida and Kasich in Ohio, if the other two aren’t competing for their votes there. In states where the delegate allocation is winner-takes-all, it makes sense for them to identify which of the three is the best placed to defeat Trump and leave the field clear for them, effectively dividing the remaining states between the three of them. It won’t give any of them the nomination before the convention – there doesn’t appear to be a strategy for that for any of them – but it keeps it from Trump.
Sure, there’s a big downside (for the Republicans, at least) in the party not having a nominee until the end of July, giving Hillary Clinton the opportunity to effectively campaign without opposition once she seals the Democratic nomination. It feels to me, though, that the choice for the Republicans is now that they either accept Trump as their candidate or plan for a brokered convention as the only way to stop him. A single Stop Trump candidate seems unlikely to emerge through the primary process, but combined action from his rivals can at least keep the nomination away from him even if they individually won’t benefit from doing so.
Then again, the Republican Party might just spend the next few months continuing to tear itself apart to the amusement of all those outside it, further confirming my theory that the corporate interest most benefiting from this year’s election is Big Popcorn.