Tampa 2012: How likely is a brokered convention for Republicans?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 19 2011 5:15 PM

Next Up: The Endless Primary

It's never too early to hope for a brokered convention!

Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney

Karl Rove says"we are likely to see several other candidates think seriously about getting in" on the GOP primary. His intentions are clear: He's making life unpleasant for Rick Perry. He's also telling the truth. Perry just entered the race after weeks and weeks of hype, and he hasn't settled anything. The din of the draft campaigns— Ryan! Christie! Rudy! Palin! hell, even Pataki!—rings just as loud and fills just as many midday Fox News segments.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Democrats, who have so little to be cheery about, are cheery about this. Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky sort of likes the idea of a bone-crunching, time-sucking Republican primary.

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"It's an internal family discussion that plays out in public," Dvorsky says. "While they're doing that, we're able to take our messaging, take our field organization, and begin it. We've had months of a jump on this, and we're going to get months more. It's a historical change for them. Gone are the days when it's 'Bob Dole's turn,' and they have their next guy up."

Once people start voting, of course, the field will narrow. Maybe. Can Mitt Romney and Rick Perry stay deadlocked well into 2012? Can the legions of Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul sweep the caucuses and refuse to quit? Can Jon Huntsman ironically tweet his way to victory in the Puerto Rico primary and become the power broker at the Tampa convention a year from now, summoning candidates into his hotel suite to lecture them on global-warming data?

Theoretically. Sort of. The Republican primary schedule is still in flux, and there's time for states to try power plays that will move the map around. Based on the moves so far, though—California moving from February to June, Florida punting its timing decision to an independent committee—there will be nothing like of 2008's 22-state Super Tuesday to sort of the field. Fewer states will go winner-take-all and award all of their delegates to the candidate who carries the popular vote.

"I like it, because I'd like to have a longer nomination process," explains Morton Blackwell, a member of the Republican National Committee from Virginia. "Yes, it could very well extend the period when it isn't clear who our nominee will be."

Curly Haugland, an RNC committeeman from North Dakota who sits on the rules committee, takes that one step further. "I've been spending a lot of time on this," says Haugland, "and it seems like there's no possibility for anything but a contested convention." That's fine with him. "The media and pollsters want this to be decided in primaries? Well, who gives a rip who wins New Hampshire? There's a bunch of left-leaning lunatics up there."

Thus the scenario—floated every four years—in which the race drags on, no one locks up the nomination, and the convention doesn't pick a candidate on the first ballot. This is the first GOP presidential primary of the Tea Party era, with state parties that have been taken over by the sort of people who decapitated Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, and (less successfully) Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It's the first post-Citizens United primary, which makes it theoretically possible for candidates to be bailed out by Super PACs funded by the sort of people who really started sweating when President Obama went after private jets.

Officially at least, only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are permitted to have primaries in February—and that's the earliest the party wants them to start. Any other state that goes earlier (and a few are floating the possibility) gets its delegation to the convention cut in half. No state that holds a primary in March is allowed to make it winner-take-all. After April 1, there are no such restrictions—California, New York, and Pennsylvania can go winner-take-all if they want to. But if the current schedule doesn't change much, only about half of the delegates will be assigned before April 1. And that, potentially, is the set-up for a long, agonizing primary.