Every four years, political junkies hope that the primaries will fail to select a consensus presidential candidate, thereby producing a dramatic showdown at the national convention. The fact that this hasn’t happened since 1952 doesn’t usually discourage them until early March, when it’s obvious that the party is coalescing around a single candidate.
But this may be the year! Probably not at the Democratic convention — unless Hillary Clinton is indicted for her email scandal and the party apparatus decides to fight Bernie Sanders in favor of a more mainstream candidate.
No, it’s on the Republican side, where we might see a contested convention. With three candidates still in the hunt and Donald Trump needing 60% of the remaining delegates to guarantee the nomination, it’s possible that no one will arrive at the Cleveland convention with a majority of the delegates. This is especially true after Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.
If political junkies are excited at the prospect, the networks must be thrilled. The Republican debates have generated huge ratings and the conventions would probably do the same. Best of all, this would be extra viewing in the summer, when ratings are low. And viewing would be live – not time-shifted – so there would be no pesky fast-forwarding during the commercials.
There was a time when the networks turned over their entire prime-time slot (and more) to the convention proceedings. Sometimes it was boring, and sometime it was dramatic. One of the most indelible TV memories of my childhood was watching the police beat up protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, while the party itself imploded inside the convention hall. The 1976 Republican convention in Chicago was also pretty exciting, with Ronald Reagan just barely falling short of unseating then-President Gerald Ford.
By the 1980s, the networks had started to cut back on their coverage, seeing little news value in the event, given that the nominees were pre-selected and the platform pre-written. In recent years, broadcast networks have allocated one hour a night to the convention proceedings, which meant that a well-oiled convention would be sure to schedule the most-important speeches between 10 and 11 p.m. ET.
The truly memorable convention events of the last 20 years have been few and far between: maybe then-State Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, or Clint Eastwood’s bizarre interview with the empty chair at the 2012 GOP gathering.
But at a contested convention, all bets are off. Trump has already threatened riots if he’s thwarted — and even if his supporters don’t riot, there is a distinct possibility of unrest from groups who oppose him.
If there’s a contested convention, the American people will become much more acquainted with the arcana of convention procedures. First stop will be wall-to-wall coverage of the Rules Committee, which will decide, among other things, whose name can be placed in nomination. This includes the rule that a candidate needs to have a majority of delegates from eight delegations to be nominated. Only Trump meets this standard so far, and it’s not clear that Cruz or Kasich will get there. The Rules Committee could change that rule, and probably will if Cruz doesn’t get his eight delegations, since he’s making sure his supporters get on the committee.
Then there will be wrestling over who gets to speak during the plenary sessions. In 1964, liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller took to the podium and denounced the likely nominee, the paleo-conservative Barry Goldwater, which resulted in pandemonium on the floor. What if some “Never Trump” speaker does the same thing this year? Or what if a speaker gives a speech so electrifying that the convention becomes swept up in the moment and nominates him or her? That’s what happened with William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
The climactic vote on the presidential nomination itself will be the highlight of the event. There has never been more than one convention vote for a president in the television era. Under state rules, most delegates go to the convention pledged to a particular candidate — but by the third round of voting, all delegates will be free to vote for whomever they like.
We can only imagine what these extra rounds will be like. By tradition, there’s an alphabetical roll call by state, and each delegation leader uses the occasion to deliver a mini-commercial for the state (“Mister Chairman, the great state of Vermont – the Green Mountain State and the land of maple syrup, cheddar cheese and Lake Champlain – proudly casts its 27 votes for the next President of the United States, Ted Cruz.”) This has a certain charm for about 10 states, but it is not a TV-friendly way to conduct a vote. It’s hard to believe that those mini-commercials will continue after the first vote, but even a straightforward roll call of the states and territories will be time-consuming.
We probably won’t know whether there will be a contested convention until June 7, when the final five states, including California, have their primaries. Until then, network executives will have their fingers crossed, hoping for a real bonfire in Cleveland.