Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “increasingly optimistic” that this summer’s Republican convention will require multiple ballots to determine a nominee, effectively rooting for a contested convention in order to stop Donald Trump from being nominated on the first ballot. It makes perfect sense in the current political environment for McConnell to hope the convention does not coalesce around the delegate leader and preclude anti-Trump forces from staging a counter-attack. It’s also a measure of just how out of control this electoral cycle has become for the Republican Party.
Contemporary party leaders simply don’t want contested conventions. Far from it. Modern conventions are media spectacles. They’re highly scripted opportunities to showcase a party’s newly minted ticket and launch it into the general election with four days of staged events designed to shape the narrative of the upcoming fall campaign and provide the ticket with a public opinion boost. Almost nothing is left to chance out of fear that an unscripted moment could undermine the convention’s carefully planned stagecraft. There may be quiet efforts behind the scenes to address unfinished business from the primaries, but when the convention works properly the public only sees a love fest. With the nominee already selected and the scars of the primary campaign receding into the background, the convention should provide the victorious campaign with a chance to stage a celebration.
It’s been this way for decades. In their early days, the major television networks provided extensive coverage of the party conventions, but by the 1980s conventions had become media events rather than news events. In 1996, ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel exited San Diego before the Republican convention concluded, saying there was simply nothing to report. That’s the kind of convention McConnell would be hoping for if this were an ordinary year.
There was a time when contested or brokered conventions were vehicles for sorting out differences among party factions, when it was possible to go ten ballots or even forty-four ballots before party leaders settled on such compromise luminaries as Warren Harding and James Cox (there may be hope for you John Kasich). But this changed with the proliferation of presidential primaries post-1968, the result of reforms designed to limit the influence of party elites over candidate selection following the disastrous nomination of Hubert Humphrey at the violent Democratic convention in Chicago. Before 1968, nominees did not have to run in every primary and caucus to accumulate delegates—Humphrey ran in none—as long as they could win the support of party leaders. Since 1968, candidates have been left to fight it out among themselves during excessively long primary campaigns like the one we’re living through now. The convention still comes at the end of the primaries as it did before ’68 and it looks the same as old-time conventions, but it is almost never the point of decision-making. This makes the contemporary national convention kind of the appendix of political parties. It may once have performed a useful function but it doesn’t anymore.
So for leaders like McConnell to endorse the prospect of a contested convention as the best possible outcome is a barometer of how close the party’s threat level is to DEFCON 1. McConnell has conceded the political advantage that comes from a staged convention and acknowledged a preference to go to Cleveland without being in charge of events in order to prevent the Trump campaign from assuming control of the convention and the party. He is signaling a preference for chaos and unpredictability—the enemy of all politicians—over the certainty of an outcome with the potential to brand Republicans as non-competitive in national politics long after the election is over. To anyone who recognizes how irregular this position is, there is no clearer measure of the severity of the malady afflicting the Republican Party.