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Path to a Brokered GOP Convention Emerges

By Sean Trende - February 9, 2012

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But now we have to consider that Santorum has won Iowa and Minnesota in the Midwest, and won Colorado largely on the strength of his showing in eastern Colorado (which is basically the Great Plains). He also won Missouri -- which is culturally more southern than Midwestern -- but Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot there.  For now at least, he is the "anti-Romney" in the Midwest.

If this split continues -- Romney in the West and Northeast, Gingrich in the South, and Santorum in the Midwest -- we could easily find ourselves in a scenario where no candidate crosses the 1,144-delegate threshold by the time voting ends. Consider this: Right now, Romney barely has a majority of the delegates. If Gingrich successfully contests the winner-takes-all allocation in the Florida primary (based on the RNC’s rule against such a format before April), no one would have a majority of the delegates as of today.

We will find out how viable this path is in the next few weeks. In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, we’ll probably see Romney win Arizona, Michigan and Maine. Arizona and Maine are in his demographic wheelhouse, while he is a native Michigander and his father was governor of the state. Washington is a coastal state, where Romney’s strength hasn’t been tested, so it is up in the air.

Super Tuesday will likely be tougher for him. Four of the five largest states -- Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia -- are Southern (or in Oklahoma's case, culturally Southern). Romney will likely win Virginia by default, but he will probably fare poorly in the remaining three. If Gingrich can maintain his strength in the South, he will likely win them.

On the other hand, Romney will probably do well in Massachusetts, Idaho and Vermont. Santorum seems well-positioned to win North Dakota.

So the viability of a three-way split probably comes down to Ohio, which has a fair number of evangelicals, though not to the degree that Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia do. Santorum has some strengths he can draw on in the Buckeye State, as his blue-collar message could play well even among Republicans there. If he wins, it means that we probably do have a deeply divided GOP, with Gingrich taking the anti-Romney vote in the South, and Santorum taking the anti-Romney vote in the Midwest.

The key is that neither Gingrich nor Santorum can begin to do so well that the other drops out.  Both must remain effectively regional candidates.  If Gingrich’s support collapses in the South, it might leave an opening there for Santorum. We’ve seen some potential evidence of this, as Gingrich’s support in Gallup’s tracking poll is down about seven points since the Florida primary (although it isn’t down in the wake of Santorum’s wins Tuesday night). If that were to occur, we would be back to a two-person race.

Alternatively, Santorum’s support could turn out to be confined to caucus states and/or states where Romney failed to spend money. Remember, Colorado and Minnesota are small state caucuses, virtually ignored by the candidates. Santorum’s win in Minnesota was large enough, however, that it could indicate broader support among the general electorate (as was his showing in eastern Colorado).  This might allow Gingrich to step in, or Romney to wrap up the nomination.

But in the event this scenario does unfold through Super Tuesday, we would then begin a long slog. But unlike 2008, where Obama’s states were frontloaded and allowed him to gain an air of inevitability early on, here the states are spread out. The remainder of March contains Northern caucuses in Wyoming and Kansas. There are Southern states: Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. At the same time, areas with heavily Latino population such as Puerto Rico, and states with relatively liberal Republican parties (Illinois) will cast their ballots. The fact that these contests award their delegates proportionately will prevent any candidate from breaking out.

In April, Gingrich would have a great chance in Texas, Maryland and Delaware (increasingly de facto Southern states in the GOP primary electorate), while Romney would receive large delegate hauls in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Santorum would have primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In the end, we could end up in California in early June with no clear nominee. While that state is nominally winner-take-all for a whopping 172 delegates, in fact it allocates the overwhelming majority of those delegates by Congressional District. Who is voting in a Republican primary in Nancy Pelosi’s or Maxine Waters’ district? I honestly have no idea, but if they’re different from the voters in the Latino central valley districts, and if they’re different than the voters in Orange County, and if they’re different from the voters in the Sierra districts, we really could have a situation where the state doesn’t produce a winner for the GOP.

If this occurs, and Ron Paul wins around 100 delegates along the way, we have a situation where no candidate has more than 900 delegates, and three have more than 400. In that situation, no one would be able to lay claim to the mantle of presumptive nominee. The convention would eventually deadlock, and an outside candidate could emerge.

This would not be without its difficulties. We’ve seen the problem with sudden, late entrants before. The nominee would have to be able to put together a platform, a fundraising organization, prepare for debates, select a running mate, and hit the campaign trail, all in a manner of weeks.

And the candidate would not be fully vetted. There might be some skeleton in his closet, or his family’s. One wing of the party might not be satisfied. Chris Christie’s name is frequently mentioned, but he believes in climate change and favors civil unions. How will the religious right react when that is in the spotlight? Mitch Daniels may bore Tea Partiers looking for a fighter, and his past as Bush’s budget director is a black mark waiting to be exploited by his opponent. Jeb Bush is a Bush. And so forth. While I think some of the choices that have been mentioned are better than others, they all come with risks.

The path to this outcome is still a very narrow, precarious one. But for the first time, I can see it. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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