The last time Republicans had a "brokered convention"

If you have been following politics in the last few days, you no doubt have heard the political chattering classes discuss a “brokered” Republican convention—that is, one in which its leaders maneuver delegates into giving their nomination for president to a late-blooming candidate who had not been a major factor in primaries or has not won any primaries at all.

Should Rick Santorum defeat Mitt Romney in Michigan’s primary next Tuesday, the scenario goes, and Newt Gingrich fares well enough on “Super Tuesday” March 7, the Republican “establishment” will search for a new candidate who can enter primaries or be chosen at the convention.  If the punditocracy on Sunday talk shows are to be trusted, this candidate could be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Brokered convention nearly out of the question

The last time a brokered convention happened for Republicans was in 1940.  At that time there were a dozen primaries, compared to the thirty-plus of 2012. Most of them were held closer to the convention rather than “front-loaded” by states in January or February.  The bulk of delegates were picked in caucuses or conventions run by state party organizations and more of them came to the convention in Philadelphia uncommitted to any candidate than committed.

The easy winner in most of the primaries was Thomas E. Dewey, 38-year-old district attorney of Manhattan and a true “celebrity crimebuster” in the mold of Elliot Ness and Rudy Giuliani.  He rolled up nearly 49.9 percent of the votes cast in primaries over three heavyweight opponents: Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative favorite and son of a President; Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenburg, the GOP’s top point man on foreign policy; and Wendell Willkie, New York “superlawyer” who had neither held nor sought elective office and had until recently been a Democrat (and freely admitted he had voted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt).

On May 8, one poll showed Dewey supported by 67 percent of likely Republican voters and 3 percent favoring Willkie (who never won a single primary and in fact got only a miniscule 21,170 votes in the primaries).  But many party leaders and influential business and opinion leaders (notably Time-Life publisher Henry Luce) felt that Dewey’s youth would be a detriment to the GOP as war continued in Europe and Asia.  Moreover, as the lone internationalist in the race, Willkie stood out from the other three, all of whom were non-interventionists in the growing World War.

So what Phyllis Schlafly called the “secret kingmakers” went to work at the convention.  The Willkie forces won the convention chairmanship, putting the rules and convention machinery in their hands.

“Back then, conventions actually chose candidates instead of ratifying the verdict of primaries,” Charles Peters wrote in his epic account of the convention Five Days in Philadelphia. “Modern conventions are shorter because their results have been pre-determined by primaries.”  He also pointed out that “[i]n 1940, security was lax to the point of non-existence and no one has figured out how many standing room tickets were distributed by Willkie’s man, [convention chairman] Sam Pryor.”  So with people such as 26-year-old Gerald Ford in the galleries cheering “We Want Willkie!,” radio listeners and delegates had the sensation of a groundswell of support.

It took six ballots but Wendell Willkie became the Republican nominee.  The rules of the time had been tailor-made for political powers to snatch nomination from a candidate who had competed in and won primaries and give it to someone who had not won a single primary.

Today, they are not.  And, with so many new factions in the Republican Party—from cultural conservatives to the “Tea Party”– one has to wonder just who would do the “brokering” at a brokered convention?

Willkie lost to FDR in his historic third term bid that fall. 

When I tweeted the fact that Willkie was the last Republican nominee who had never won a primary, my friend and colleague Philippa Thomas of the BBC responded most poignantly:  “A warning not to ignore the grass-roots, you think?”