In the days following Mitt Romney’s overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, his route to the nomination looked relatively easy. He appeared to have won in both Iowa and New Hampshire—something no non-incumbent Republican has ever done. He was leading in the polls both nationally and in South Carolina, which has picked the eventual Republican nominee since before 1980, and appeared on the brink of going 3 for 3. Add to all this the Romney campaign’s superior financial and organizational strength, as well as the backing of many establishment Republicans, and it appeared that the nomination fight would be over before it even got started.
However, that changed dramatically over the course of a week. Newt Gingrich, who has thrived in debates throughout the campaign, wowed many South Carolina conservatives with fiery performances in two consecutive debates. Romney, meanwhile, spent much of the week leading up to the South Carolina primary on the defensive about his reluctance to release his tax returns. Meanwhile, Perry dropped out and endorsed Gingrich; Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa after a recount; and Gingrich ultimately won a resounding victory in South Carolina, putting a serious dent in Romney’s aura of inevitability.
It is not yet clear what Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina means long-term. It likely makes Florida almost a must-win for Romney, while Gingrich needs to at least do well enough in Florida to remain a viable alternative in the eyes of voters. Even assuming Rick Santorum stays in the race following his third-place finish in South Carolina, he may not stop Gingrich from achieving his goal of creating a united conservative, anti-Romney coalition. Gingrich seems to have enjoyed at least a short-term bounce in Florida polls from his performance in South Carolina. Nevertheless, recent polls show an extremely close race in Florida. There is still a decent chance that Romney wins Florida and goes on to win the nomination, even if South Carolina allows Gingrich to carry on the fight longer than was once expected.
However, there have been some rumors about another scenario—a scenario which presently seems far-fetched, but might become less so if Gingrich wins Florida. Nate Silver wrote back in December that “Republicans are dangerously close to having none of their candidates be acceptable to both rank-and-file voters and the party establishment.” Indeed, a sizeable bloc of conservative primary voters remains unenthusiastic about the prospect of Romney as the party’s standard-bearer. Gingrich, meanwhile, is unacceptable to many establishment Republicans, who view him as undisciplined, unreliable, and likely to self-destruct in the general election. Gingrich has near-universal name recognition and an unfavorable rating approaching 60% among the general electorate, meaning that he would have an uphill battle in the general election, even if he could manage to stay on his best behavior. If the fight between Romney and Gingrich continues for months, both candidates may become so damaged that they seem even more unappealing and/or unelectable. This raises the question: what if neither candidate wins enough delegates in the primaries to secure the nomination?
According to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, many prominent conservatives in Washington are “trying to figure out a way to get to a brokered convention.”
A brokered convention occurs if nobody secures a majority of delegates on the first ballot at the national convention. At that point, all delegates are free to switch their allegiances, and horse-trading and further ballots ensue until someone gains a majority of delegates. This has not occurred since the Democratic National Convention of 1952. The last Republican brokered convention was in 1948. There have been more recent conventions—the 1976 Republican National Convention and the 1984 Democratic National Convention—that began without any candidate having won a majority of delegates, but in which the eventual nominee won enough delegates on the first ballot. Whether by coincidence or not, in all of these cases, the eventual nominee (Thomas Dewey in 1948, Adlai Stevenson in 1952, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Walter Mondale in 1984) lost in the general election. The same is true of several other contentious (but not brokered) conventions in recent memory. Hubert Humphrey, nominated at the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention, George McGovern, nominated by the Democrats at the contentious 1972 Convention, and Jimmy Carter—who had secured a majority of delegates before the 1980 Convention but had to fend off an unusual convention challenge from Ted Kennedy, who lobbied for a rules change to allow Carter delegates to switch to him—also all lost in the general election.
Many Republican voters have long wished that another candidate would enter the race. Several conservative favorites, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, declined to run, although some have continued to beg them to make a late entrance. A brokered convention could be the perfect opportunity for those who are not happy with either Gingrich or Romney to make a final pitch for an outsider to enter and save the day. Interestingly, Daniels was tapped to give the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, giving Republicans a chance to see him perform before a national audience.
The Republican Party’s rules could also increase the likelihood of a brokered convention. According to Republican Party Rule 38, “No delegate or alternate delegate shall be bound by any attempt of any state or Congressional district to impose the unit rule.” This has been taken to mean that delegates are technically free agents, even on the first ballot. Under normal circumstances, a delegate who does not vote for the candidate to whom she is pledged might face considerable opprobrium. However, that might not be the case if there is a widespread embrace of an outside candidate. Another rules-related issue that might increase the likelihood of a contentious convention, if not a brokered convention, is the fact that some states (including Florida) have disregarded party rules by holding primaries before party rules permit and by declaring their primaries to be winner-take-all. Thus, a candidate who loses such states could demand that some or all of their delegates be disqualified (recall the controversy over the seating of delegates from Florida and Michigan in the 2008 Democratic campaign).
The likelihood of a brokered or chaotic convention may still be slim. However, given the volatility of the current race, and the number of unexpected twists and turns so far, it seems that nothing is impossible.
Photo Credit: http://rncnyc2004.blogspot.com