The deadlock scenario

Mitt Romney’s week from hell has revived the most enduring fantasy of political junkies

Topics: War Room,

The deadlock scenarioRepublican presidential candidate Rick Santorum listens as fellow candidates Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich chat during a break in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida, January 23, 2012. (Credit: Reuters)

Rick Santorum’s three-state sweep this week has revived speculation that the Republican primary season will end without a candidate securing the magic number of delegates needed for a first ballot nomination, resulting in a deadlocked convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer. (“Deadlocked,” and not “brokered,” is the proper description for this scenario, as Jonathan Bernstein recently explained.)

On CNN this morning, Sen. Jim DeMint said that the GOP race “could very well go to the convention,” while former RNC Chairman Michael Steele on MSNBC pegged the chances of a deadlock at “52-48.” Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics makes a solid case for why they could be right. The basic idea is that there seem to be clear geographic and cultural divisions in the results so far — with Mitt Romney doing well in the Northeast and West, Santorum cleaning up in the Midwest, and Newt Gingrich faring well in the Bible Belt. If those divisions persist and Ron Paul manages to gobble up a chunk of delegates, the primary season just might fail to produce a clear winner.

But as fun as the scenario is to imagine, there’s a good reason to be skeptical of the deadlocked convention talk: We’ve heard it many times before in the modern campaign era, without anything ever coming of it.

The last time there was true post-primary season suspense on the GOP side was in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both emerged from the last wave of contests in early June short of the magic delegate number. But there were still a number of state conventions scheduled before the August national convention in Kansas City, and because it was a genuine two-man race, there was never any doubt that someone would win a first ballot nomination. Still, the drama in Kansas City was real, with Reagan trying to expand his support by anointing Pennsylvania moderate Richard Schweicker as his running mate — a move that unsettled conservatives and helped Ford secure a 1,187-1,070 victory on the first ballot.

That was the last truly unpredictable convention that either party has staged. But at various moments in primary campaigns since then, we’ve heard the kind of deadlocked convention chatter we’re now hearing. Here’s a look at our brushes with convention excitement:

1976, Democrats: This was the race that changed the way the political world understood the nominating process. As the Democratic race began, it was a common assumption that there would be a deadlocked convention, which is why there was no rush to crown Jimmy Carter as the inevitable nominee despite his weekly victories in primary states — and why two candidates, Idaho Sen. Frank Church and California Gov. Jerry Brown, both felt comfortable entering the race months after the first primaries began. And when Church and Brown enjoyed immediate success, it only strengthened the view that the Democratic convention would turn to a non-Carter candidate — maybe someone in the race already, or maybe Ted Kennedy or Hubert Humphrey. This was how Democrats were used to doing business. But the primary season had been radically expanded under new party rules, and when he won Ohio in June, Carter claimed to have a delegate majority. It steadily dawned on party leaders that he was right and that there’d be no deadlocked convention.

1980, Republicans: Reagan entered as the clear favorite, but there was considerable trepidation among party leaders (and the GOP’s then-vibrant moderate/liberal wing) about his general election prospects; his far-right rhetoric called to mind Barry Goldwater, who just 16 years earlier had suffered an epic defeat against LBJ. Reagan was upset by George H.W. Bush (who ran as the moderate wing’s candidate) in Iowa, recovered in New Hampshire, then struggled in a series of contests in New England — where liberal Republican John Anderson fared surprisingly well. This stirred talk of a deadlocked convention — one in which former President Ford, then seen as the party’s most bankable national face, would either play the role of savior or kingmaker. Here’s how Godfrey Sperling presented the Anderson and Ford scenarios in a March 1980 Christian Science Monitor column:

Just off his “impossible dream” in New England — and with his new momentum, Representative Anderson wins in his home state on March 18 and follows that by picking up enough crossover votes to take the Wisconsin primary on April 1.

Mr. Anderson then finally gets to the national convention with about 400 delegates, but with Messrs. Reagan and Bush deadlocked and Gerald Ford, now in the contest, having only enough votes to help another but not himself.

At that point, Mr. Ford gives his support to his old friend and sidekick in Congress, John Anderson, who marches toward the 998 delegates he needs for the nomination.


With the current inability of any one candidate to take command, former President Ford may well decide to get into the race — even though he has already missed the opportunity to enter more than half of the primaries.

The Ford rationale is one in which he gets enough delegates to become the beneficiary of a deadlock at the convention.

But if Mr. Ford could “decide” the nomination by turning his delegates over to another, would his choice be Congressman Anderson? The former President is also a very close friend of George Bush.

But none of this ever materialized. Soon thereafter, Reagan won a solid victory in Illinois that sidelined Anderson (who then bolted the party to run as an independent), rolled it into the next wave of states, survived a surprise Bush win in Pennsylvania, and cruised to the nomination with a massive delegate majority.

1980, Democrats: This was essentially a two-man race between Carter and Kennedy, with Brown making some early noise but amassing few delegates. So, as with Reagan and Ford in ’76, it was clear the race would be settled on the first ballot at the convention — and Carter, boosted by the rally-around-the-flag effect of the Iran hostage crisis, emerged from the primary season with a clear majority. But Kennedy had closed strongly and Carter’s poll numbers were declining. So Kennedy made a last-minute push to change the convention rules and free delegates from their commitments. It was a long shot, but it provided for at least some suspense at Madison Square Garden. When it was rejected, the race was officially over.

1984, Democrats: The primary season opened with expectations that Walter Mondale would wrap up the nomination in record time. Instead, Gary Hart scored a surprise (if very distant) second place finish in Iowa, rolled it into a shocking New Hampshire win a week later, and soon had Mondale on the ropes. But Mondale bounced back with some key Southern wins, and the two men spent the spring traveling the country and trading wins — with a third candidate Jesse Jackson, picking up a few hundred delegates of his own. A deadlock seemed possible, as this Joseph C. Harsch column from March ’84 made clear:

There is now a visible chance that Mr. Mondale will not get a first-ballot nomination. If the delegates committed to Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, and the uncommitted delegates, should pool their resources, they might be able to head off a quick Mondale victory. If so, then what happens?

The Democratic convention could at that point be blown wide open. Almost anything could happen. Suppose a lot of delegates are by that time disenchanted with the three existing candidates and start looking around for a possible alternative. One already hears talk of Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas or Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. Both are mentioned as possible running mates for Walter Mondale, but also as possible alternatives for the top of the ticket

But when the final primaries were over in June, Mondale declared himself the winner, thanks to strong support from a newly created class of convention participants — the superdelegates. (It also helped Mondale that party rules at the time awarded Jackson a small number of delegates relative to his strength in many states.) But Hart refused to quit. “Welcome to overtime,” he declared the morning after the last June primaries. He spent the next five weeks pointing to polls that showed him running better against Reagan than Mondale and pleading with superdelegates to change their minds, but they wouldn’t budge, and when the convention opened it was obvious Mondale would win on the first ballot.

1988, Democrats: It looked like Democrats had an epic mess on their hands when Jesse Jackson unexpectedly crushed Michael Dukakis in the March 26 Michigan caucuses — a result that put Jackson in the lead in the national delegate count. Dukakis was a weak  (accidental, really) front-runner, and by that point several other candidates and former candidates (Paul Simon, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore) were sitting on piles of delegates. Suddenly, it seemed like Jackson — who was demonstrating surprising support among white voters — might parlay his Michigan triumph into more victories and emerge from the primary season with the most delegates (but not enough for a first ballot nomination). From R.W. Apple Jr.’s March 29, 1988, New York Times story:

Democratic Party leaders expressed astonishment today at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s landslide victory in the Michigan caucuses Saturday and confessed that they found it hard, after weeks of surprises, to predict how or when the party’s Presidential race would be decided.

For the first time, party professionals began actively contemplating the possibility that Mr. Jackson could emerge from the primary season, which ends in California and New Jersey June 7, with the most delegates.

One said that it was ”remotely, barely, distantly conceivable” that the party might actually end up by nominating Mr. Jackson. Others agreed that outcome was possible but, although they would not say it for attribution, almost none believed that a black candidate can be elected.

Paul Maslin, a highly regarded Democratic poll taker in Washington, commented: ”The party is up against an extraordinary end-game. If this guy has more convention votes than anyone else, how can we not nominate him? But how can we nominate him?”

It turned out they had nothing to fear. Party leaders closed ranks around Dukakis, who quickly beat Jackson in Connecticut, Wisconsin and New York, then rolled through the rest of the primaries without breaking a sweat.

1992, Democrats: Bill Clinton seemed to have the nomination wrapped up when he posted giant wins in Illinois and Michigan in the middle of March — this a week after Clinton had racked up a big delegate lead with a series of Super Tuesday wins. When his chief rival, Paul Tsongas, then suspended his campaign, the race seemed over. And then, out of nowhere, Jerry Brown won Connecticut, stunning Clinton in what remains one of the biggest primary season upsets ever. The result sparked genuine panic among Democratic leaders: Clinton had already weathered several scandals (Gennifer Flowers, Vietnam) and it was widely believed that Republicans would (in the words of Bob Kerrey) open him up “like a soft peanut” in the fall. The Connecticut result prompted some loud and public soul-searching: Is there anything we can do to stop this guy?

This set up the next contest, in New York, as a pivotal test for Clinton: Win and his campaign would be back on track; but lose again, and the floodgates might open. Already, names of potential white knight candidates (Mario Cuomo? Bill Bradley?) were being circulated, and Tsongas put out the word that he’d reenter the fray if Clinton lost again. Here’s how David Von Drehle summed it up in the Washington Post:

Yet while the Republicans are busy closing ranks around a candidate they despise in great numbers, the Democrats are furiously ripping the wings, legs and antennae from a front-runner they feel, well, squeamish about. They are unable to produce, halfway through the primary season, anything more than a crippled front-runner, an empty chameleon and sad hopes of a brokered convention.

But Clinton then won New York, and that was that.

1996, Republicans: There was a very brief window of deadlock talk after Bob Dole lost to Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire, casting doubt on Dole’s viability. But Buchanan was an unacceptable choice for most party leaders, which gave Lamar Alexander (who finished just behind Dole in New Hampshire) hope of emerging as the establishment’s preferred vehicle to take down Buchanan. But Steve Forbes, who was pouring tens of millions of his own dollars into the race, also hoped to play that role — and gained new credibility with wins in Delaware and Arizona after New Hampshire. The muddled picture that all of this created led to this kind of talk, captured in a New York Times story from late-February ’96:

Another possible result is that every victory by a candidate in one state will be canceled out by another candidate’s win somewhere else, and no candidate will amass enough delegates to avoid a brokered convention in San Diego in August.

“The scenario that’s emerging is the one that says, gee, maybe we’ll be deadlocked in San Diego,” said Mr. Ginsberg, the former Republican Committee official.

“That’s the one that captures the imagination. Deep in our heart of hearts, all of us would love to live through a brokered convention.”

Dole then won South Carolina by a convincing margin, killing Buchanan’s momentum and marginalizing the rest of the field once and for all. The Dole/Buchanan race that ensued wasn’t much of a contest.

2008, Republicans: Deadlock talk seemed sensible as the ’08 primary season opened; five candidates — Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani — were all bunched together in national polls, and all sorts of outcomes were plausible. Writing in the Boston Globe, Republican strategist Todd Domke summed it up this way:

If five candidates each win a fraction of delegates – 5 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, 35 percent – there could be a deadlocked convention.

That would be like the GOP convention of 1860, when there were many factional, regional favorites. After three ballots, they settled on an Illinois attorney named Lincoln, a local “favorite son” since the convention was in Chicago. Once elected, he tried to achieve national and party unity by appointing his defeated foes to the cabinet.

We won’t be electing a political genius this time, but the campaign will be historic. And we best savor it by taking it seriously and humorously – as Lincoln once did.

But when January ended with McCain wins in South Carolina and Florida, the deadlock talk quieted.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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