A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
With many (if not most) GOP voters harboring a “none-of-the-above” attitude toward the current crop of presidential contenders, insiders and activists have begun developing dreams of deliverance via deadlock and dark horses. The present state of the race, with four or more candidates drawing significant support in Iowa and elsewhere, raises the real possibility that no one aspirant will win a majority of delegates on the first ballot, creating an opening for some fresh face (Rubio? Christie? Mitch Daniels? Paul Ryan? Even Jeb Bush?) to emerge as the anointed nominee of a brokered convention.
The idea of some surprise selection that could unite a divided and dispirited party remains a longshot but more plausible than at any time in the last sixty years.
In 1952, the Democrats came to Chicago unimpressed with any of the candidates who had competed ferociously in the primaries and turned to the diffident, bookish governor of Illinois who hosted the convention, Adlai Stevenson, on the third ballot. Before the convention opened, Stevenson had insistently disavowed any interest in running for the nation’s highest office.
The last time a GOP convention picked a surprise nominee came in 1940, when delegates in Philadelphia looked askance at a flawed field of primary candidates and, after six bitterly divided ballots, turned instead to a former Democrat and power company executive who had never before run for public office: Wendell Wilkie. In 1924, Democrats took 103 ballots before sheer exhaustion led them to select a spectacularly obscure, former one-term Congressman from West Virginia, John W. Davis. Four years earlier, the Republicans went through ten ballots before negotiations in the infamous “smoke-filled room” produced the nomination of the handsome but little-known Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding.
Of these last-minute nominees only Harding won the White House (with a record-setting popular vote margin, in fact) but this year increasing cadres of concerned conservatives worry that the bruising primary process will damage all current candidates and only some convention-selected compromise choice could unite the party and thrash Barack Obama.
For two reasons a deadlocked convention and a surprise selection have become at least conceivable in 2012.