Political Turmoil: Brokered Conventions, Third Party Threats, and the Future of American Politics

As we head into tonight’s Republican caucus in Nevada, the race has dwindled to five candidates. Donald Trump continues to dominate the field with his chest-beating and bravado, leading in the state by 20 points. Ted Cruz, despite coming in third in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, continues to push forward with a traditional ground game based on traditional values. John Kasich is still positioning himself as the reasonable candidate, but with single-digit polling numbers, it looks like the electorate isn’t buying it. Dr. Ben Carson, with his painfully dull persona and woefully shallow policy perspectives, refuses to bow out. And Marco Rubio, the establishment heir apparent in the wake of Jeb Bush‘s departure, seems strapped in for the long haul.

But Trump still holds a commanding lead in national polls and is positioned not only to win Nevada, but the bulk of the Super Tuesday states. So why do the remaining candidates seem so resolute?

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Part of it comes back to a reasonable comment made by (shocker!) Carson on MSNBC this morning. It is a long race and a lot of things can happen during that time. Who can forget when one ill-timed scream knocked Howard Dean off the fast track to the Democratic nomination? It is very possible — and, frankly, likely — that one of these candidates will experience a gaffe or scandal fatal to their campaigns in the months ahead. The candidates still in the race are betting on it, but those types of missteps are, by their nature, unpredictable. That’s one expensive gamble, especially when the person to crash and burn could very well be you.

Another reason candidates aren’t throwing in the towel is the prospect of consolidating support when others leave the race. When Scott Walker exited the ring before the race had begun in earnest, he spoke of the need for consolidation, a prescient warning of what might happen if Trump continued without a strong opponent. But his warning didn’t get much traction. Instead, it fueled debate about where his donors and supporters would go. As people like Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie have exited, that line of inquiry has continued. Cruz and Rubio, in particular, seem to be waiting for Carson and Kasich to leave the ring, both assuming they’ll be able to capture the lion’s share of their abandoned supporters.

But this assumes that a candidate’s supporters will act as a monolithic bloc, and that perspective doesn’t hold water. Take Bush’s exit, for instance. As a recent New York Times analysis suggests, his voters are split across a variety of metrics. Ideologically, his supporters would align best with Kasich or Rubio, but the top issue for his supporters — terrorism — is closest to the priorities of Cruz voters. Jeb’s supporters were the oldest voting bloc of all the candidates, with Trump supporters coming in second on that age spectrum. And, as the Huffington Post reported, 23% of Jeb voters, when asked about their second choice, said they didn’t know who they’d swing to, compared to 19% who said they’d swing to Rubio and 12% who said they’d swing to Cruz. Trump, in theory, would benefit as well, with 11% of Bush voters preferring him to the rest of the field.

This cuts against the narrative that candidates exiting the race will propel one of the Trump alternatives to the top. Think about it. In South Carolina, Trump captured 32.5% of the vote, Rubio grabbed 22.5%, Cruz managed 22.3%, and Bush brought in 7.8%. If the Huffington Post polling numbers are used to consider what might have happened if Bush wasn’t in the race, Rubio, for instance, would have received an additional 19% of 7.8%, or a boost of 1.4%. Trump would have received 11% of 7.8%, or a boost of 0.8%. That would have put Trump at 33.3% and Rubio at 23.9%. In other words, it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.

Could this consolidation be more meaningful if Kasich and Carson bid their campaigns adieu? Perhaps, but if the trend continues, odds are that the dynamics of what is already functionally a three-person race do not change. So why do Rubio and Cruz continue to celebrate second and third place finishes? Why, when Rubio has only 12 projected delegates and Cruz only 11, do they cast themselves as competitive with Trump’s 67? Why do they keep fighting?

The answer, it seems, is that they don’t plan on beating Trump on the electoral map. They’re planning to beat him in a brokered convention.

A brokered convention is every political junkie’s wet dream. We haven’t seen one since the 1950s. We haven’t even seen a contested contest since the 1970s. And now, for the first time in decades, we may have the opportunity to witness a type of political theater so rare we can barely contain our joy.

What, exactly, is a brokered convention? It’s difficult to explain, and it varies by parties. For Republicans, which is what’s relevant in this conversation, a brokered convention happens when one of the two situations occurs: either a candidate fails to secure a simple majority of the available delegates or fails to capture a simple majority in 8 of 50 states.

(To be fair, that last part is no sure thing. It can be voted out of the rules during the convention. But for the sake of conversation, we’ll assume it remains.)

We had a glimmer of something like this in 2012, when Ron Paul‘s very vocal supporters threatened to derail the Mitt Romney nomination moment. Realistically, they didn’t have a shot. But even their relatively small ruckus sent establishment types into a tizzy. He was never going to knock out Romney, but the spectre of defection haunted GOP officials so much that they ejected a number of delegates. It wasn’t enough to completely taint the convention, but it left a sour taste in the mouths of a sect of Republicans.

If this seems inconsequential, think again. It’s a symptom of an underlying terror about the prospects of a brokered convention, or even a contested one, airing on live television. As Ronald Reagan battled Gerald Ford in 1976 in front of an American audience, the public looked on in horror. Though it echoed of years gone by, it was a vision to which the American electorate had not yet had access. Since then, both parties have panicked at the hint of a brokered convention.

Today is no exception. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently brushed off the idea of something like that happening in the Democratic party, and for what it’s worth, she’s probably right. The map ahead does not bode well for Sanders. But for Republicans, a brokered convention is, much to the chagrin of establishment Republicans, looking more likely than not. GOP Chairman Reince Priebus says the party is ready for anything. Rubio recently floated the idea to the press. Trump thinks it’s unlikely, but behind the scenes, the campaigns are ready for war, actively researching state delegates in preparation for convention floor campaigning.

With Super Tuesday and its more than 600 delegates just around the corner, Trump is likely to win the vast majority of states up for grabs. There are a couple of notable places — Texas and Minnesota, for starters — where he’s got ground to make up, but those states alone are not enough to turn the tide for Rubio or Cruz. Then again, wins in these states and others do not a majority make for Trump. The bulk of the Super Tuesday contests allocate delegates proportionately, which means that, if results align with the highly contested polls, then Cruz, Rubio, and Trump could come out with relatively close delegate counts.

To be fair, those gaps in delegate counts might become more pronounced as primaries continue beyond Super Tuesday. In the second half of March, there are 362 delegates up for grab in winner-take-all Republican primaries. In each of the major contests during that period, Trump holds a double-digit lead in the polls. The lone exception is Ohio, where Trump holds a mere 5 point lead over Kasich, for whom that state should be a guarantee, not a contest. And things don’t get much better after that. For states voting in April, Trump currently holds the lead in every single one.

Even if Cruz and Rubio can capture 30% of the delegates in all of the proportional primaries on the map from Trump, which is a very generous assumption at this point, they still just manage to get a little over 400 delegates. If they’re going to stop Trump from getting to that magical 1,191 delegate count, they’re going to have to find a way to capture the majority of the vote in those winner-take-all contests. Second and third place finishes won’t cut it. And even if they do somehow manage to catch up to the double-digit leads Trump enjoys in most of those states, the odds of them doing that in enough of the winner-take-all states is also astronomically low.

Their best case scenario is the generous one we’ve discussed. If everything goes right for Rubio and Cruz, they and Trump end up with just over 700 candidates. Under these circumstances, a brokered convention is a certainty. But let’s be real: that’s not likely. And in the winner-take-all states that could be in play, there is not an even split in chances between Rubio and Cruz. In fact, Cruz has a strong edge over Rubio in those states, with the exception of a few that garner strong support for Kasich. Still, if they do get to a brokered convention, the numbers bode well for Trump and Cruz carrying the lion’s share of delegates.

But what the Rubio campaign knows is that they don’t need an even split. They just need him to capture enough delegates to be considered remotely relevant. It doesn’t matter whether Cruz or Rubio gets more delegates. One of them needs to get close for both to be able to make a case on the convention floor. And that’s why we’re seeing that parallel primary being waged.

What happens in a brokered convention? It’s possible that Trump prevails, particularly if his lead over Cruz and Rubio is pronounced. It’s possible one of the three captures enough delegates up for grabs from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond after Kasich and Carson bow out to edge out one of the other three. It’s possible that Cruz translates his ground game into a solid convention floor game, winning over enough delegates through conventional means to snatch the crown from Trump. It’s possible that establishment types manage to scare the delegates into picking the seemingly safer option in Rubio.

Honestly, though, speculation on what the outcome might be is little more than a thought exercise at this juncture. In politics, as Carson pointed out, five months is a lifetime.

But there’s one factor that could shape the GOP convention in a very significant manner: the spectre of a third party run by Trump. Early in this race, GOP candidates signed a loyalty pledge, promising not to run against the selected nominee if they lost. This pledge, while signed by all of the candidates, was really all about Trump. He agreed to it then, but has also said that he views that pledge as a two-way street, and he feels the GOP has failed to hold up their end of the bargain by “allowing” Cruz to continually lie about him and hosting debates he feels have been exceedingly hostile towards him, hinting that failure to fall in line behind him would yield a third party run.

If Trump loses in a brokered convention, especially if he hits 1,191 delegates but doesn’t win on the floor, that third party run is much more likely. That’s when things get fun. A third party run by Trump would deeply fracture the GOP, making it next to impossible for them to secure the White House, regardless of whether Rubio or Cruz take the crown.

Polls in early December showed that 68% of Trump’s supporters would vote for him as a third party candidate if he didn’t grab the nomination. Further polling showed that Trump would at least capture 9% of the total electorate if he ran against a GOP candidate in the general, of which the majority of the voters would otherwise be considered Republican voters. When a three-way matchup was presented with Hillary Clinton, Trump, and either Cruz or Rubio, Clinton was the one who benefited. As The Hill reported:

A third-party presidential run by Donald Trump would take votes away from Republicans and bump Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton ahead of GOP hopefuls in Iowa, a new poll found Thursday.

A new Public Policy Polling survey shows that Clinton trails Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by 3 percentage points, 47 percent to 44 percent, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) by 7 points, 48 percent to 41 percent, in general election match-ups.

But if Trump were to run as an independent, the real estate mogul would receive 23 percent in a hypothetical match-up with Clinton and Rubio, giving the former secretary of State a 6-point lead over the Florida senator.

Similarly, Cruz would lead Clinton, 47 percent to 44 percent, in a head-to-head match-up; with Trump in the picture, Cruz’s support dropped to 33 percent, 8 points behind Clinton, and Trump received 20 percent.

“If Donald Trump doesn’t stick to his pledge not to run as an independent, it could pretty much doom the Republican Party next fall,” Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said in a release. “GOP leadership will have to be very careful not to offend him and steer him in that direction.”

Now, these numbers would indicate that a third-party run is still ill-advised for Trump. And a number of other variables, like sore loser laws in swing states and operational challenges related to ground organization, may deepen the margins by which he loses. But Trump is not a rational actor. Entering the race was, at the time he announced, incredibly irrational. Much of his “strategic” choices have, on face, been irrational. Don’t count on him behaving rationally if the convention doesn’t play out in his favor.

The prospect of Trump running as a third party candidate makes it clear that the nominating contest and a potential brokered convention come down to a question of whether or not the party is more interested in the White House or self-preservation. If they push Trump aside in favor of a candidate that is more broadly palatable, they quite possibly sacrifice their odds of winning the presidency in the general. If they embrace a Trump candidacy, they may irrevocably damage the image of the party, particularly if he wins and actually governs in the way he’s promised to. It’s one thing to watch a reality star entertain the public. It’s another to watch him dishonor the office and drive American security off a cliff. If that happens, Trump could single-handedly kill off the Republican Party.

So Republican candidates, concerned about their ability to beat Trump the old fashioned way, are preparing for a battle royale on the convention floor in July. There are multiple scenarios in which such a fight would take place. That may not matter. Trump may come out victorious, anyway, no matter how many millions of dollars are spent by his opponents over the next several months, partially out of fear of what would be a plausible third party run from Trump if things don’t go his way.

If Trump runs as a third party candidate, he costs Republicans the White House. But if Republicans embrace Trump, they could be committing political suicide in the long run.

But there’s one other wild card in the mix: Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire and former New York City mayor has been talking about mounting a third party run if Bernie Sanders and Trump secure their party’s nomination. Trump’s candidacy is more likely than a Sanders win at this point, and Bloomberg generally likes Clinton, so odds are low that he actually gets in the race. But, oh, if he did…

Bloomberg was a very popular mayor known as a social liberal and financial conservative with strong ties to Wall Street. He has lower name recognition than Trump or Sanders, and in three-way polling, he doesn’t seem to have a shot at actually winning the election. But if Sanders were to get the nomination and Trump also mounted a third party run with Cruz or Rubio carrying the Republican nomination, the race could get a lot closer. Hell, it could even open the door for Jill Stein of the Green Party to get a foothold. It could yield a presidential race where the winner probably gets less than 30% of the total vote.

While a four-way race would be fascinating to watch, it would also set the scene for the biggest political revolution in over a century. America has long been dominated by a two party system. Though third party candidacies have been mounted in the past, they’ve never been viable. They have, at times, been impactful, but never truly taken seriously. If this election season gets wilder that three candidates, it signals a much larger opportunity for those operating outside of the two party structure.

And honestly, that would probably be a good thing. We complain a lot about politics and partisanship and gridlock, but there’s a lot less incentive to build cross-party coalitions when it’s just two major players in the game. If you introduce representation from the Green Party, socialists, independents, ultra-conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats, and others, suddenly the only way you get anything done is by abandoning hyper-partisanship and looking for ways to work together. In such a world, everyone wins. (Or no one wins. But is that really different from where we’re at today?)

All of the mental gymnastics aside, though, the most likely outcome of the primaries, at this point at least, gives us a Trump/Clinton matchup. Most of the polling data on this pairing gives Clinton a slight edge, but in some cases, that edge is within the margin of error on the poll. There are no certainties this year, no matter how you look at the race.

Holding all this in mind, there’s only one thing atheists concerned with the outcome can do: brace yourself for chaos.

(Image via Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

About Lauren Nelson

Lauren Nelson is an advocate and aspiring ally focused on intersectional justice. When she's not gabbing on social media or chasing after her precocious seven year old, you'll find her researching and writing extensively on the subjects of politics, policy, culture, neurodiversity, and faith for The Friendly Atheist and Rethink the Rant.