The Eventual GOP Nominee: None of the Above?

In a presidential nominating contest, what has tended to happen in modern times is that, as the primaries unfold, candidates fall by the wayside, one consolidates a front-runner position, and that momentum or gravitational force (boosted by an influx of campaign cash) swings the rest of the party into line, so it’s all over before the convention actually meets to ratify the choice. The front-runner will have amassed a delegate majority, and any further squabbling is moot.

This modern era follows a long previous one where things were different; without pervasive primaries to winnow the field and bind delegates, conventions tended to be more wide-open, with the outcome decided through horse-trading and often repeated balloting. In 1920, most famously, the party bosses met in a “smoke filled room” to pick Warren Harding.

 That system was undermined not just by primaries but especially by winner-take-all primaries. That means that if you win a state’s primary, no matter by how small a plurality, you get all its delegates. (Just like in the electoral vote.) That obviously tends to magnify the front-runner’s advantage and load him up with delegates.

But lately both parties have moved away from winner-take-all. There is some sense of unfairness about a candidate getting 49% of the vote and 0% of delegates. So more delegates are now being awarded on a proportional basis. This made for a protracted battle among Democrats in 2008, with two candidates fairly evenly matched, and neither able to gain (till the end) a decisive delegate lead because of proportional allocations.

Turning to 2012, the conventional wisdom has always been that in the end, the nominee will have to be Romney. If nothing else, he has way more money to deploy, and we saw how he carpet-bombed Newt in Florida with negative ads. And of course none of the alternatives seems viable. Santorum is now on his second coming as the non-Romney du jour, but let’s not forget that he lost his Senate re-election (in the swing state of Pennsylvania) by an historically large margin – and there was a reason for that. Santorum does have some things going for him – a January David Brooks column about this was quite intriguing – he does speak to some real concerns and feelings – but he’s short on presidential gravitas. And while many Republicans may love his extreme positions on social issues, they can’t possibly imagine the nation as a whole will embrace this. Again, look what happened in Pennsylvania.

But here’s what I am leading up to. Romney will still ultimately have to cobble together 1144 delegates (a majority of the 2286 total). At least 117 are unbound superdelegates, and there are additional delegates that won’t be bound (it’s complicated; you can check out the details on this Wikipedia page). But Romney’s biggest problem is that a large majority of delegates (larger than ever) will be awarded proportionally rather than on a winner-take-all basis. Thus, even if Romney wins most of the remaining primaries, he will still have a tough time amassing 1144 delegates, if he wins primaries with less than 50% of the vote. And so far, Romney has never attracted 50% of the GOP electorate. As long as two or three other candidates remain in the race and gather up proportionally-allotted delegates, 1144 will be elusive for Romney.

Admittedly, if Romney actually does win most remaining primaries, the gravitational momentum will swing the party into line and he couldn’t really be denied the nomination. But to date he hasn’t even won as many contests as Santorum. (Meantime, it’s even harder to see how Santorum could get to 1144 either.)

Romney is having such a hard slog because so many Republicans, probably most, don’t want him and very much want to find a way to avoid nominating him. “Front-runner” he may be, but if Romney is not at least very close to having 1144 committed delegates at the convention, I don’t think he’ll be the nominee.

Does that mean Santorum, or Gingrich, or Paul will be the nominee? Certainly not. It means that Chris Christie, or Mitch Daniels, or Jeb Bush will be the nominee. If Romney can’t win the first ballot, it will be an open convention like in olden times – a “brokered convention” some might call it, with another “smoke-filled room.” Of course, today nobody smokes; more important, “party bosses” are essentially an extinct species. An open convention in 2012 will be a lot messier and unpredictable; there will be a whole lotta politics going’ on. The convention could pick anybody who momentarily captures the delegates’ fancy.

How likely is this scenario? If I were a betting man, I’d still bet that Romney manages to limp to the nomination; but an open convention is a very real possibility.

I think it would be terrific, for the party and the country, and a fascinating spectacle, a real case of “democracy in action.” The nation would be riveted; and a fresh candidate, pulled, as it were, like a rabbit out of a hat, would electrify voters.

 Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

One Response to “The Eventual GOP Nominee: None of the Above?”

  1. Scott Perlman Says:

    As my mother would say, “From your mouth to god’s ears.” Of course she was of the faith. So I will just say you have provided me with a small ray of hope. Very interesting observation and nice post.

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