A brokered convention occurs when none of the presidential candidates enters their party’s national convention having won enough delegates during the primaries and caucuses to secure the nomination.
As a result, none of the candidates is able to win the nomination on the first ballot, a rare event in modern political history that forces delegates and party elite to engage in convention-floor jockeying for votes and multiple rounds of balloting to reach a nomination.
A brokered convention is different from an “open convention,” in which none of the delegates are pledged to a particular candidate. Pledged delegates are those that are assigned to a specific candidate based on the outcome of a state's primary or caucus.
In the 2012 Republican presidential contest, 1,144 delegates are needed to secure the nomination.
Brokered Convention History
Brokered conventions have become rare since the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, no presidential nomination has gone beyond the first round of balloting since 1952. Since then presumed presidential nominees secure enough delegates for the nomination months before the party conventions.
Nomination conventions of the past were lively and unscripted, where party bosses negotiated for votes on the floor. Those in the modern era have become humdrum and anticlimactic, as the nominee has already been chosen through the lengthy primary and caucus process such as the one in 2012.
According to the late New York Times columnist William Safire, writing in Safire’s Political Dictionary, brokered conventions of the past were “dominated by factional party leaders and favorite sons, who dealt directly or through ‘neutral leaders’” or power brokers.“As the state primary or caucus system has taken over, the outcome has become rarely in doubt,” according to Safire. “ … The convention then becomes more of a coronation, much like what usually happens when an incumbent president is a candidate for renomination.”
Why Brokered Conventions Are Rare
One of the most significant developments of the 20th century helped to make brokered conventions a rarity: television.
Delegates and party bosses did want to expose viewers to the ugly machinations and brutal horse-trading of the nomination process.
“It is no coincidence that brokered conventions ended after networks began to televise them,” political scientists G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young wrote in 2007.
The 1952 Republican National Convention, though settled on the first ballot when Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft, “appalled thousands who watched it on TV. Since that time, both parties try mightily to orchestrate their convention as a political love feast - lest they antagonize viewers who will be voters in November,” according to Madonna and Young.
Most Recent Republican Brokered Conventions
For Republicans, the most recent brokered convention was in 1948, which also happened to be the first televised national convention. The top contenders were New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen.
Dewey failed to win enough votes to win the nomination in the first round of balloting, getting 434 votes to Taft's 224 and Stassen's 157. Dewey inched closer in the second round with 515 votes, but his opponents tried to create a bloc of votes against him.
They failed, and on the third ballot, both Taft and Stassen withdrew from the contest, giving Dewey all 1,094 delegate votes. He later lost to Harry S. Truman.
Most Recent Democratic Brokered Conventions
For Democrats, the most recent brokered convention was in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson won the nomination in three rounds of balloting. His closest rivals were U.S. Sen. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Stevenson went on to lose the general election that year to Eisenhower.
Democrats came close to having another brokered convention, though, in 1984, when Vice President Walter Mondale needed the votes of super delegates to beat Gary Hart at the convention.
Longest Brokered Convention
The most ballots cast in a brokered convention was in 2914, when it took 103 rounds of voting for Democrats to nominate John Davis, according to Madonna and Young. He later lost the presidential contest to Calvin Coolidge.