Convention Wisdom

"Brokered convention" has been the catchphrase on everyone's lips since Super Tuesday turned out more inconclusive than expected, for both parties. Without very clear front runners, it suddenly became possible that nobody would collect the majority of delegates needed to get past the first vote come convention time. Does Mitt Romney's announcement Thursday that he's suspending his campaign change everything for the Republicans? To find out just how long the competition within each party might hold out and what the political landscape might look like at the convention, NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul checked in with veteran GOP strategist Stuart Spencer, who has run presidential campaigns since the 1960s. He was close to the action in 1976, the last time a brokered convention seemed likely, when President Gerald Ford led Ronald Reagan by only a small margin at the beginning of the convention—and there was talk of a co-presidency. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Given that political junkies love to muse about brokered conventions, is the buzz this year based in reality, or is it just buzz?
Stuart Spencer:
When you look at what happened on Super Tuesday, you have to assume that it's a possibility that it could go to a brokered convention. We've not had a brokered convention since 1952 with the Democrats, and not had a Republican one since 1948. So yes, it gets bandied about, but realistically, it's a real possibility, more so than in the last two or three elections.

How does Romney's suspension today change the possibilities for the Republican Party?
Before that, a brokered convention was very possible on the Republican side. But still, John McCain's No. 1 problem is the very conservative element in the Republican Party, as demonstrated by Tuesday's vote. The vote in the South went to Huckabee to a great degree, in the west it went to Romney. But if Romney pulls out, it's not automatic that Huckabee's going to get it. It probably creates a donnybrook between the conservative element and John McCain's type of people, the independents. Otherwise, with Romney removed, it becomes mano a mano. The other scenario is Romney could go to McCain and make a deal, agree to support him. McCain has to address that problem in his party somehow. I can't see Huckabee winning it, but he could give McCain a run for his money. We have a problem with conservative feelings about McCain, with Rush Limbaugh bashing him everyday and [Dr. James] Dobson saying he could never vote for him. It's a constituency—not a majority—but they could rally around Huckabee and make it more divisive. In the end, I think McCain will still win it.

If McCain is now the front runner, does this put more pressure on the Democrats to decide on their candidate earlier, if they're facing a united Republican Party that's definitely not going to a brokered convention?
If McCain is the known nominee who has a history of getting independent voters, then the dialogue may change in the Democratic Party, and you might hear [Barack] Obama talking more about his electability over Hillary [Clinton]. But that's it. Sure, it's an advantage to come out of a convention that's not divided. But by the same token, what do you talk about for the next six months? Do you get overexposed, how do you spend your money, how do you stay alive? Plus, you become the target of two Democrats who are still running against each other. So, there are pluses and minuses.

How would you expect a brokered convention to play out?
When you're at a convention and you don't have the delegates after the first ballot, then you're into a brokered convention. I've seen people talk about the 1976 convention being brokered, which it was not. Ford came into the convention with enough votes, not if you counted only the primary votes but if you included the votes from the caucuses. The combination put him over and he won in the first ballot. But in a brokered situation, no one's got enough votes on the first ballot, and it's open wheeling and dealing on who's going to be the pick for vice president, all kinds of potential appointments in the cabinet. The biggest thing is the platform, how you use the platform to advance an emotional issue that favors your candidate. In that sense, a lot of maneuvering can go on. In the single-issue society today, with all the [political action committees] around for taxation, guns and everything else, I would guess they would play an important role in lobbying for certain candidates. And then of course there's money. And by money, I mean pledging that if so-and-so is the nominee, then somebody will see that certain congressmen will raise money for him. But I expect the overriding issue will be either one ideological issue or who can win in November. But it would be wild.

Does it just devolve into political anarchy?
No, politics is anarchy to begin with. It's business as usual, just doing it in a different way. You need good vote counters, who use multiple sources, saying, "I believe this person is for us, but I want two other people to tell me so." And this is about all delegates, not just superdelegates, because after the first round, you're not committed anymore. Now that's when it becomes interesting. It never made it past the first ballot in 1976, but either way, Ford owned the apparatus. We had the state party apparatus, the incumbency, the goodies, like Air Force one rides and coming to the White House for dinner. But Ronald Reagan had the heart and soul of the party. Very similar to Obama and Clinton, actually [laughs].

In wooing these delegates, what becomes fair game? Anything?
Yeah, I have to admit, anything. Probably illegal. Part of the tactics you've got to use is figuring out what resonates with each person. It's something different from everybody, a commitment for a ship or a veterans' hospital. You can go deep into each of their personal lives to really see what everybody wants. What do you want? You can have it. What do you want? You can have it. In 1976, it got so bad that Henry Kissinger accused me of giving away his entire foreign policy—and he was right, I did! Because we didn't want any ideological divide on the floor of the convention. I knew then the heart-and-soul types would take over.

What about planning the details of the convention? Could the little things like choosing the keynote speaker sway it one way or the other?
That's a whole separate game that's played all the time. You can have a committee chairman who plays it straight down the line, or one who leans toward one candidate and can make key appointments beneficial to that candidate. But the party apparatus isn't as strong as it was years ago. The PACs, lobbyists, political consultants have a lot more influence on the process.

Are you planning to get involved, or are you keeping out of it?
Been there, done that. It's a young man's game. Let them worry about all the problems I worried about for 40 years.