Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s win in the early primary state of South Carolina on Saturday raises the prospect of a protracted primary battle, even a brokered Republican Party convention in August by which time none of the four candidates in the race may have secured enough delegates to win a majority on the first ballot.
Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson raised the possibility of a brokered convention at RedState in December of last year, opining that none of the party’s contenders were “proving to be of a caliber of conservative leader we should be putting on the field to take on the socialist in the White House.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is widely perceived as the frontrunner and likely nominee. Compared to Newt Gingrich, who is his closest rival for the nomination, Romney, according to recent polls, would stand a better chance of beating Barack Obama in the general election. But there’s a fear, as Jonah Goldberg pointed out in National Review, that a Romney candidacy may not draw out rank and file Republicans in large enough numbers to make the November election a referendum on President Obama.
Every four years, pundits and activists talk about how cool it would be to have a brokered convention. This is the first time I can remember where people say it may be necessary.
Former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC morning show host, agreed on Friday when he said that “Newt is the vessel that people like Sarah Palin and others who want a brokered convention are riding right now. They want to keep this going.”
He predicted that if Gingrich gathered enough momentum to position himself as the presumptive nominee, prominent Republicans, like former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, would throw their support behind another candidate, presumably Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who is the most socially conservative candidate among the four still running.
Texas congressman Ron Paul is another factor to be reckoned with. He won roughly 20 percent of the vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Although he may not do well in the Deep South, he could pose a real threat to whoever is the frontrunner in the Mountain West where conservative voters tend to be more libertarian.
Paul doesn’t seem to anticipate a third party run but he has a very committed base of supporters who may carry him onto the convention to try to influence the party platform. His delegates could tip the voting balance in favor of either Gingrich, Romney or a candidate who hasn’t participated in the primaries but emerges as a contender at the convention.
A recent change in party rules makes a brokered convention this year likelier than before. Unlike was the case in most previous primary races, delegates are now often elected on proportional bases instead of winner takes all. Florida, which votes January 31 and has fifty delegates up for grabs, is a notable exception but even they will only be bound for three ballots at the convention.
Before Super Tuesday in early March, when ten different states vote at once, among them Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia, just 15 percent of delegates will have been selected. The Super Tuesday votes combined pick nearly 25 percent of delegates. Large states like Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, New York and California will organize primaries between the end of March and early June. Each have huge numbers of delegates at stake which could prove decisive if Gingrich, Paul, Romney and Santorum all stay in the race beyond Super Tuesday.
If, by the time the party convenes in Tampa, Florida on August 27, there isn’t a candidate yet, there will be as many rounds of voting as is necessary to get a majority and elect a nominee. Depending on the number of ballots for which delegates are bound, a person who didn’t participate in the primaries could be nominated if, for instance, Romney’s delegates won’t vote for Gingrich or vice versa.
Contenders may include Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, the Republican governors of New Jersey and Indiana, who are both popular with conservative activists and heralded as reform-minded chief executives who aren’t afraid to challenge vested interests and cut spending. They ruled out presidential runs last year and Christie recently endorsed Mitt Romney. If, more than six months from now, their party has still failed to find a nominee, could they be persuaded to run after all?