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.
First, the Republican field features at least four candidates with staying power who will divide votes during the long primary season and end up denying a majority to any one of them. In the past, candidates have won nomination by knocking out their less viable rivals—as John McCain dispatched Fred Thompson after a feeble showing in South Carolina, Rudy Giuliani after an embarrassing loss in Florida and Mitt Romney after Super-Tuesday, leaving only the underfunded Mike Huckabee as his token competition.
This year, Romney again boasts a lavish war chest (which he could always supplement from his own considerable fortune) and has deployed organized support in every corner of the country; unless he’s totally shut out of the early primaries (including an unlikely loss in New Hampshire) he’ll remain a major factor up to the convention. The same is true for Newt Gingrich, whose ability to command media attention and to dominate televised debates can keep him competitive nearly everywhere. Ron Paul will always stay in the race, winning 10 to 15 percent of the vote wherever he competes, powered by true-believer followers who worship him as a religious cult leader more than a conventional candidate. And finally, there’s Rick Perry, with plenty of big money backers, vastly improved debate performances, a pointed appeal to Christian conservatives and, significantly, a sure-thing trove of delegates from his home state of Texas that will comprise the second largest (after California) delegation at the Tampa convention. Even if Perry stands scant chance of winning the ultimate nomination, his continued campaigning will allow him to play a major role at the convention and to avoid a Giuliani-style embarrassment as a feckless flash-in-the-pan.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that Michele Bachmann will indeed drop out if she fails to win a top three slot in Iowa and will shift her focus to the defense of her threatened Congressional seat in Minnesota. But Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum could well continue their long-shot campaigns all the way to Tampa in pursuit of their real goals: in Huntsman’s case, setting himself up for an expected run in 2016 (assuming a GOP loss this year, and for Santorum, winning enough attention and name recognition to seize a prime position as a TV or radio talk host (where he’ll compete with other former candidates like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Herman Cain).
The other reason that this year’s GOP may convene the first multi-ballot convention since the Democrats in ’52 involves the revised rules and schedule of Republican primaries. Last time, McCain won the nomination on February 5 (Super Tuesday) by grabbing 574 delegates –including 170 in California alone. This time, there is no real “Super Tuesday” with a flurry of crucial primaries on the same day, and Californians won’t vote till June 6 (a full 120 days later than last year). Moreover, most states have shunned the “winner take all” system of delegate apportionment that allowed prior candidates to land knock-out blows with only 30 or 35 percent of a state’s votes, bagging all the delegates with only slight pluralities in a divided field.
The proportional distribution of most delegates for 2012 means that even if Mitt Romney (or Newt Gingrich) wins most of the contested primaries, in the highly likely event that he scores less than 50 percent he could well earn less than half the first-ballot delegates – mandating a deadlocked convention and unpredictable developments on second, third or fourth ballots.
This outcome appeals to all media outlets (who would relish the high drama and corresponding high ratings) as well as party organizers who would welcome the engagement of the grass roots in a fiercely competitive race and a visibly open convention.
The most likely result would still be the nomination of one of the front-running primary candidates – if, for instance, Governor Perry asks his two-hundred or more delegates to shift to Governor Romney, putting Mitt over the top with the implicit (or explicit) expectation that Perry gets the nod as the Vice Presidential selection (setting up a Boston-Austin axis recalling JFK and LBJ).
A dark horse candidate becomes likely only if one of the principal candidates withdraws in his favor. It’s conceivable, for instance, that Romney, seeing his path to the nomination irrevocably blocked, might embrace his friend (and supporter) Chris Christie, playing the role of conservative kingmaker and assuring himself a prominent role in the new administration.
Playing out the possible scenarios can energize political junkies as well as conservative activists and help sustain the keen public interest in the GOP primary process (where televised debates have already set ratings records). Some members of the party establishment may feel infuriated by the flawed and fractured field, but for many of us as spectators and foot soldiers the prospect of deadlock and dark horses counts as more fascinating than frustrating.