Could Republicans face a brokered convention next July?

Could Republicans enter their national convention in Cleveland next July with no clear-cut nominee?

It hasn't happened in 40 years, but GOP officials are beginning to prepare for that possibility as they face a still-crowded field of 14 contenders.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, met last week with top party officials for a regularly scheduled dinner and the topic of a brokered convention came up, The Washington Post first reported.

On "CBS This Morning" Wednesday, Priebus said a brokered convention is unlikely and dismissed speculation that party leaders are trying to orchestrate one.

"You know, I highly doubt it. I think most likely, we'll have a presumptive nominee by mid-April, end of March, but probably mid-April," predicted Priebus, who added, "The idea that I would call a meeting at a public restaurant in Washington D.C. to discuss the idea of engineering a brokered convention is ridiculous."

Technically, the convention would become brokered if none of the presidential candidates is able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination on a first-ballot vote at the convention. If that were to happen, delegates would hold more rounds of voting until a nominee is chosen.

At the Democratic National Convention in 1924, delegates selected John W. Davis of West Virginia as their nominee after 103 ballots and 16 days.

The GOP's last brokered convention was in 1948, although the party was close to a brokered convention in 1976. While incumbent President Gerald Ford did not have enough delegates going into the convention that summer, he was able to secure the nomination against challenger Ronald Reagan on the first ballot.

Could it happen next summer for the first time in nearly 70 years? Experts say they doubt it, but with just about a month and a half to go before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, anything is possible.

"I certainly think it's unlikely," said Gregory Magarian, election law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "If enough candidates stay in the race, have substantial pluralities of the delegate count, and nobody gets close to the top, theoretically it's possible that if someone is just short, that would be enough to cause a brokered convention."

In the spin room following the fifth GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas Wednesday, former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon told NPR that the odds of a brokered convention are higher now with such a crowded field.

"We've got 10-plus candidates. The field hasn't winnowed out yet. You can see a scenario where somebody wins Iowa, somebody else wins New Hampshire, somebody else could win South Carolina, and somebody else could win Florida," he said. "Let me put it this way: there's a better chance of a brokered convention than any time in our lifetime."

Still, experts point out that this conversation happens every four years, and the sequence of the primaries always winds up putting enough pressure on candidates to make them gradually drop out.

There has already been quite a bit of movement in the GOP race. Nationally, there's been a rise and fall in poll numbers for Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Donald Trump has remained the steady frontrunner across the country, but Ted Cruz is now picking up steam in Iowa. A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg News poll released last weekend found Cruz has taken the lead in that key early voting state, beating Trump by 10 percentage points.

"If past is prologue, we're likely to see the field winnow fairly quickly, down to three, four candidates, maybe even two, through the month of February," said Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia, who studies the intricacies of party rules and delegate allocation.

Around March 15 -- the point at which half of the delegates will have been allocated to Republican candidates -- Putnam said that whoever has even a small lead then is usually the one who will ultimately win the nomination.

Each political party has a set of rules -- most of which are now set in stone for next summer -- that govern the delegate selection process and how nominees are selected. But one particular rule Republicans modified at the Republican National Convention in 2012 could now become problematic.

In order to be considered for the nomination, the changed rules require that candidates must win at least eight states and win the majority of delegates in those states rather than just a simple plurality.

"It's that rule that I think is driving a lot of the conspiracies and other chatter about these contested conventions right now," Putnam said.

Marc Landy, political science professor at Boston College, agrees a brokered convention is "extremely unlikely" because the primary process is always supposed to produce a frontrunner. If that winds up being Trump, he said he can't imagine party officials trying to manipulate the nomination process.

"I think if Trump goes into the convention with a clear plurality of the delegates, he would win," he said. "I don't think they have the stomach to take that away from him."

But Landy added that if he's wrong, and the convention transforms into a battle for the nomination, Trump could mount a third-party bid.

"Once it goes to a brokered convention, then I think Trump's leverage to run as an independent is just huge," which he added would "kill the Republican nominee if that happens."

At the debate Wednesday, however, Trump appeared to end speculation that he would launch an independent campaign when moderator and radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump whether he was ready to assure Republicans that will run as a Republican and abide by the decision of the Republicans.

"I really am. I'll be honest, I really am," Trump replied. "But I will tell you, I am totally committed to the Republican Party. I feel very honored to be the frontrunner."

A fight on the convention floor could be a double-edged sword for the party.

Julian Zelizer, political science professor at Princeton University, said a chaotic convention would not look good to voters. On the other hand, he said it could benefit some of Trump's rivals by enabling them to overcome a potential delegate deficit.

"I think the best scenario for anti-Trump Republicans is that the other candidates do well enough in enough primaries that the total count is unclear, that there's no decisive winner going into the convention. That's what happened in 1976," he said.

Republican insiders could try and prevent a brokered convention or a Trump nomination early on, Zelizer said, if they focus on throwing support, endorsements and donations behind someone else like Sen. Marco Rubio.

"That's the only way they stop him at this point," he said of Trump.

But experts stress it's still too early to tell how the race will shape up until the primaries begin.

"After New Hampshire if people are still having this conversation at this level of intensity and seriousness, then I think we've really got a ballgame on our hands," Magarian said.

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.