WASHINGTON — What happens if the primaries don't produce presidential nominees for one party — or the other — or both?
For Democrats, the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race could continue through the primaries. If John Edwards stays in, he could win enough delegates to prevent either Clinton or Obama from securing enough convention delegates to win the nomination.
On the Republican side, the once implausible seems possible. Three candidates — Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney — each have won important early contests. All show strength among disparate party constituencies. A fourth candidate, Rudy Giuliani, hasn't seriously competed in any primaries yet. It's possible that the four could split primary wins — and delegates — all the way through the primary season, leaving none with a majority of delegates.
Suddenly those summer conventions — ridiculed in recent years as four-day parties with scripted outcomes — could matter: Delegates might have to stay awake and sober long enough to choose a nominee.
"It's not so amazing," said R. Craig Sautter, who's written three books on presidential nominating conventions. "Any time you have more than two candidates who are strong, you have the possibility of nobody going into the convention with enough delegates."
It hasn't been that way for a long while.
The last truly contested convention was 1976, when Republicans gathered in Kansas City. Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan fought President Gerald Ford all the way through the primaries. Ford had just enough delegates to win entering the convention. Reagan worked hard to woo some away; Ford worked equally hard to keep them. Ultimately, Ford won by a slender margin on the first ballot of delegates.
The last time a convention went beyond the first ballot for the top spot on a ticket was in 1952, when it took three ballots for Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to win the Democratic nomination. Republicans went three ballots in 1948 to give New York Gov. Tom Dewey the nomination over Ohio Sen. Robert Taft.
Such excitement was once the norm, in an era when primaries mattered little because powerful local bosses controlled vast numbers of delegates who generally were party hacks. Back then, conventions were vehicles to wield power and settle scores.
Even Franklin Roosevelt had to wheel and deal his way to the Democratic nomination on four ballots in Chicago in 1932. (Until 1936, Democrats required nominees to have the support of two-thirds of the delegates; now, both parties require simple majorities.)
In 1924, Democrats went through 103 ballots over nine days in New York to settle on John W. Davis, a Wall Street lawyer, one-term congressman and former ambassador to Great Britain. That ended the brutal duel between the two leading candidates, New York Gov. Al Smith and Californian William McAdoo, a former secretary of the Treasury, which was heightened by the fact that many delegates were Ku Klux Klan members virulently opposed to Smith, a Roman Catholic.
``They were exhausted; people were exasperated," Sautter said. "The party was being torn apart on national radio. Davis was a person who was above the fray. He was respected by all, and the party turned to him."
Davis then lost the presidency to Calvin Coolidge, winning only 29 percent of the vote.
It's unlikely that 2008 would see a return to bosses sitting in smoke-filled rooms choosing compromise nominees like Davis. (Another such nominee, Warren G. Harding, was chosen after 10 ballots by Republicans in 1920.) Party reforms of the 1970s ensure that most delegates are committed to individual candidates, not controlled by party leaders.
Such reforms came about after 1968, when after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, even though he hadn't really competed in primaries.
"A combination of the civil rights era, the war in Vietnam and the fact that the boss era was ending" sparked reforms, said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "It was an effort to open (conventions) up to a wider group of constituents, more demographically balanced."
As primaries gained importance, conventions became little more than marketing opportunities for the political parties.
Still, a candidate would have to make deals to get over the top in a brokered convention this year. Most likely, candidates in third place or lower in the delegate count would agree to throw their support to the first- or second-place finishers on the second ballot in exchange for ... something.
Democrats also have 796 "super-delegates," generally elected officials who likely would want to ensure a clean win for the nominee and avoid a nationally televised fracas at the Denver conclave. Unlike delegates chosen in primaries, they're officially unpledged — even if they've endorsed a candidate. Democrats require 2,025 delegates for the nomination.
Republicans don't have super-delegates, but the rules on how delegates vote are basically left to the state and territory parties. More than 650 GOP delegates could arrive at the Minneapolis-St. Paul convention unpledged to any candidate, while more could be only informally bound to vote for a candidate, according to Jay Cost, a University of Chicago political science graduate student writing for www.realclearpolitics.com. Republicans require 1,191 delegates for the nomination.
"Super-delegates could be described as an elitist check on the Democratic electorate, while the Republican side is more a maze of 54 different schemes," Cost said.
The result, Madonna said: "Not only do we not know who would broker a convention without the old bosses. We're not even sure what would happen on a first ballot."