Just how agonizing? Republicans are confident that it won't be as bad as Obama-Clinton. The main reason: Their version of balanced, non-winner-take-all primaries isn't as bend-over-backward fair as the Democrats' version. Even in the scenario in which Romney, Perry, and Bachmann take chunks out of one anothers' hides for a couple months, there'll be more decisive results than the ones Obama and Clinton got.
The reason for that, explains election-watching academic Josh Putnam, is that the GOP's "balanced" primaries aren't really balanced. In next year's primaries in Michigan, Virginia, and other states tweaking their systems, some delegates will be assigned, proportionately, to the biggest vote-getters in those states. But most will be assigned on a winner-take-all basis, congressional-district-by-congressional district. In 2008, the states that used this system allowed John McCain to lock down his nomination with slim wins. In California, he only beat Mitt Romney by seven points, 42 percent to 35 percent. He won the state's delegates in a landslide, 155-15.
Does that mean that the GOP primary's messiness won't matter, and that one of the frontrunners will win in a hurry anyway? Well, it depends what the word "win" means. Go back to that new X-factor of state Republican parties that have been taken over by Tea Party and Ron Paul activists. If the race is still inconclusive in late spring, what's to stop these activists from crashing the state conventions and sending a bunch of Bachmann or Paul delegates to Tampa, instead of Romney delegates? Technically, nothing is stopping them.
"The reality is that the primaries and causes that the media covers in the early months are just the first steps," explains John Yob. He was the McCain campaign's political director in 2008. "After the initial contests, there are contests where the actual delegates are elected. Those delegates aren't necessarily bound to vote the way the primary electorate voted. I'll give you an example: In 2008, the McCain campaign sent teams to roughly 35 state conventions across the country in order to make sure McCain delegates were elected. This was after the media had coronated him as the nominee."
What would one of the GOP's nightmare scenarios look like? The simplest one starts with a Bachmann win in Iowa, followed (possibly, if the state sticks with a current plan) by a win in her own state's caucuses the next day. It continues with an indecisive Missouri primary, with the state punished for moving the date up. It goes on to a Mitt Romney win in New Hampshire and a too-close-for-comfort Romney-Bachmann-Perry-Paul split in the Nevada caucuses the following Saturday. Perry wins South Carolina. Romney wins Michigan. There are no surprises as we head into March. (There's no use guessing what happens in Florida yet, but if the other primaries are split, it may not be decisive.)
On March 6, Super Tuesday, Romney wins the his home state and neighboring Vermont, while Perry wins his home state and neighboring Oklahoma. At this point, Perry has more delegates than Romney, but Bachmann's not out of the race yet, and neither is Paul. Paul does well in the Hawaii caucuses, Perry wins the Mississippi primary, and March ends with a slugfest in Illinois and another winnable Perry primary in Louisiana.
After that, we're mostly done with the South, and we're done with non-winner-take-all primaries. The race moves back to the Midwest, West, and East Coast. If Perry's rivals are still in the hunt, and Super PACs are still playing, then there's no obvious Republican front-runner. And that would give Republican activists more than enough motive to start showing up at state conventions and steering them to the candidates they like.
Republicans can avoid the drawn-out mess. By Oct. 1, 2011, states have to give their final delegate selection rules to the RNC, with whatever don't-screw-with-delegates rules they can dream up. And it's entirely possible that someone will break out of the pack and be a clear frontrunner and consensus choice before the first vote is cast in Iowa next February. In which case the hopes—and fears—of a brokered convention will have to wait until 2016.