History News Network

By Nicole Hemmer

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will likely nab enough delegates in today's primaries to cross the halfway mark in his bid to clinch the Republican presidential nomination. As he inches ever closer to the finish line, two things have become clear. First, Romney is the only candidate able to capture the majority of delegates. And second, a still-sizable contingent of GOP voters would desperately like to stop him.

That desperation has breathed new life into the idea of a brokered convention (in which delegates or party leaders rather than voters choose the party’s nominee), which has now become the main goal of both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, Romney’s two main rivals. Their hope: while no other candidate can amass enough delegates to win the nomination outright, they could block Romney from doing so. If they do, the choice moves from the voting booth to the national convention in Tampa, Florida.

The irony behind the desire for a brokered convention is that the more conservative candidates will ultimately lose to a more moderate one, just as they have in the primaries. The last time one of the major parties went to the convention without a candidate—the 1976 Republican National Convention—revealed the real obstacle to a “true conservative” snagging the party’s nomination: No matter how conservative the candidate, the Right has proven far too fractured and inflexible to settle on a single standard-bearer. As we’ve seen in the last few months, even a Dove Soap conservative—one 99-and-44/100% pure—gets tossed aside for that .0056% apostasy.

Dreams of a brokered convention are nothing new for purity-seeking conservatives. Though the right was well-satisfied with the candidate-selection process in 1980 and 1984, the Reagan years proved the exception rather than the rule when it came to voter-driven nominations. Soon conservatives began sending up quadrennial prayers for an eleventh-hour deus ex machina to save the Republican Party from Republican voters. In 1988 the National Review agitated for a brokered convention after then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, memorably described as “somewhere to the center of center,” emerged as the party’s frontrunner.

The brokered convention never transpired, and the following years saw the nominations of similarly moderate candidates Bob Dole and John McCain. Like Mitt Romney, these candidates led the Right to dream of a brokered convention. Clearly, conservatives thought, GOP voters couldn’t be trusted to pick a reliably conservative candidate.

But if history is any guide, even if they get their brokered convention conservatives will still go home empty-handed. Consider 1976. Sitting President Gerald Ford, notable for having ascended to the presidency without ever being elected on a presidential ticket, failed to capture the necessary number of delegates. What thwarted him? A popular challenger from his right, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan had been the darling of conservatives since 1964, when he delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s failed campaign. Every election thereafter, Reagan’s name popped up as the savior for true believers, culminating in his 1976 candidacy. By the time the bunting went up in the Kansas City convention hall, he was achingly close to the nomination, just a hundred or so delegates behind Ford.

But the most important lesson of the 1976 convention wasn’t Reagan’s ability to challenge Ford from the right. It was what happened next. Feeling secure with conservatives—they had, after all, spent the better part of a decade begging him to run—Reagan made a play for the middle. He named Richard Schweiker, a liberal Republican senator from Pennsylvania, as his running mate.

Conservatives bolted. Led by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a bloc of hard-right delegates coalesced behind New York senator James Buckley (brother of National Review founder William F. Buckley). “A ticket that is only fairly conservative—bland—is not going to excite the people,” Helms argued as he launched his rebellion. “What we’re talking about is a conservatism that leaves absolutely no doubt.” So no Reagan for them. He had turned out to be just another party operative, not a true conservative.

That insistence on ideological purity—a purity test not even Ronald Reagan could pass—has long been the hill on which the Right’s dream of a conservative candidate dies. Primary season after primary season, the more moderate candidate wins the day because conservatives can’t coalesce behind one mostly-right candidate.

Thus, while a brokered convention may strike Anybody-But-Romney Republicans as the way to a true conservative on the 2012 ticket, history shows they will find themselves disappointed once again. Just as their votes have split time and again this primary season, the convention floor will provide no salve for conservative splintering. Until the base tempers purity with pragmatism, a more moderate candidate will always carry the day.