It’s the scenario every political reporter, and every West Wing fan, wants to see for real: a brokered convention. And after a week in which the GOP’s presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney sucked up three defeats, two CPAC polling wins, and a muddy apparent victory in Maine, people are talking about the prospect once again.
Take Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). “It could very well go to the convention,” he told CNN at CPAC Thursday.
Two questions arise: could the delegate-allocating process really not be resolved by the time the party meets for its convention in Tampa? And what are the rules for how things play out if it does?
A legitimate contested convention is still unlikely, but it’s not impossible if Santorum keeps up his strength in the Midwest, Gingrich keeps winning the South, Ron Paul keeps winning his consistent minority share of delegates, and Mitt Romney can’t rally the party behind him. While the rules governing each state’s actual delegate selection methods are complex and varied, The Washington Examiner’s Phillip Klein has a pretty broad rundown of how Romney’s strongest states alone may not be enough to put him over the 1,144 delegate mark needed to secure a majority. Real Clear Politics also has a more detailed dive into just which states and demographics might play a role in keeping the process going to Tampa. Others are more skeptical: Ed Kilgore, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, notes that the delegate rules still favor Romney if he can keep winning a weak plurality in states.
The next question is just what happens if they get there. For months, Republican pundits speculated (or hoped) that a late entrant to the race might rescue the party from having to rally behind a disappointing frontrunner. Rick Perry was the only one of these candidates to take up the task and his campaign imploded within weeks. Other big names like governors Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels as well as House GOP Budget Chair Paul Ryan all declined to run despite efforts by prominent Republicans to draft them into the race.
While it’s way too late for any of those candidates to get on the ballot in enough states to win, they could potentially be nominated from the floor of the Republican convention. According to the RNC rules adopted in 2008, a plurality of delegates from five states need to declare their support for a candidate in order to bring them up for a vote on the nomination.
The next question is whether enough delegates would go along with an arrangement like this to make it work. While many delegates are “bound” by state rules to vote for a specific candidate based on their showing in a primary, caucus, or convention, these delegates are usually released under the same rules if the contest goes on after several ballots. Other states, like Alabama, can unbind their delegates if 2/3 of the group agrees, or if the candidate “releases” them, as is the case in Mississippi. And it’s not clear the whole “bound” rule can even be enforced by the states in the first place — the RNC codes prohibit state chairs from forcing individuals to vote with the majority of their delegates.
“The truth is our rules are set up so the delegates of the convention are all independent,” RNC committee member Curly Haugland of North Dakota told TPM.
So bringing in a dark horse candidate as a compromise offer isn’t impossible procedurally. But in practice it may be near impossible. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes that the old “brokered conventions” before the modern primary age relied on powerful party bosses, such as those from the famed Tammany Hall machine in New York, to deliver their delegates en masse to a candidate. But in the current age it’s not clear there are any leaders with that kind of pull over groups of delegates, making credible negotiations more difficult to work out.
“Basically, if we ever get there, it’s up for grabs and we have no idea who the delegates will be loyal to,” Bernstein told TPM. “They may just be an individual case by case basis.”
In addition, even if by some miracle a consensus emerges around a new candidate, their problems are severe once they accept the nomination. Without any organization ready, they’d likely have to accept limited federal funds to run their effort and then hope to cannibalize from the losing contenders immediately to create some kind of functioning campaign. President Obama, a prodigious fundraiser who will not be encumbered by these restrictions, will be able to outspend them by a huge ratio. He’ll also have a strong ground game primed and ready to roll out. While conservative Super PACs might be able to help make up the spending difference on TV and radio ads, overall the Republican would be at a deep disadvantage.
Republican consultant Soren Dayton suggested that because of this, any hopeful deus ex machina candidate would have to declare their run now and start fundraising with the expectation of a brokered convention in order to compete.
“The concrete logistics are incredibly complicated, Dayton told TPM. “To compete financially, people need to start raising money now so they can pay for things like the jet the candidate and press corps fly around in. That’s the discussion you have to have, and I don’t see anybody doing it now.”
The more realistic scenario is that Romney has to find a way to top off a delegate majority after several deadlocked ballots. One way to do this would be to recruit Republican officials who are automatically sent to the convention, the so-called “super delegates” who became a major story in the 2008 Democratic race, and make the case that you need their votes to prevent a party disaster. But even if they were sympathetic, there are fewer of them up for grabs on the Republican side — 111 by the AP’s count — meaning they might not be enough to settle the nomination.
Another option is to get a different campaign to play kingmaker. Here is where Ron Paul could play a major factor. Not only is he racking up a loyal group of delegates, but his followers have been known to try and take over state conventions which are usually low turnout affairs, in order to select more Paul delegates than were won proportionately in the caucuses. They nearly succeeded in Nevada in 2008, long after McCain was the presumptive nominee. While these “stealth” delegates might be bound under state law to support the state winner, if the convention is deadlocked they’d be released and could bolster Paul’s clout even further.
The Washington Post recently noted that Romney has gone out of his way to befriend Paul across the last two campaigns and the two seem to have a relatively warm relationship. Perhaps he could win a major platform concession from Romney in exchange for agreeing to deliver his delegates?
Again, these scenarios are unlikely to play out, but if it were to come down to it, these are the situations that the rules would permit to arise.
Image from Carsten Reisinger/ Shutterstock
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.