Don’t believe the hype. There is almost zero chance that the current Republican primary process will result in a contested convention in August.
The media would love to see it, especially the liberal media – what could be more embarrassing for Republicans? But the nature of the modern primary system itself, along with the continued soundness of the Romney campaign, make it a remote chance at best.
First, let’s consider how a presidential nominee is selected. The answer is delegates. But how are delegates selected? It used to be by party bosses; now, in the age of the open presidential primary, candidates submit their delegate slates (the number determined by the party) and the winner gets to send his or her delegates to the convention – either all (in winner-take-all) or a fraction (in proportional primaries). There are also some unelected, so-called superdelegates who are not pledged. Of the total 2,286 Republican delegates, 1,806 are pledged.
If we get to Tampa and none of the candidates has a majority of the delegates after the first vote, all pledged delegates are released and the horse-trading begins. The trick is to cobble together a majority. And that is where the talk of a contested convention comes in.
The delegate count, after all, is far from over: Just 15% are chosen before Super Tuesday, March 6; 19% through Super Tuesday (gets you to 34%); and 17% in the rest of March (gets you to 51%). The remaining 48% come in April, May and June (21%, 12%, 15%, respectively). All in all, 1144 delegates are needed to win the Republican nomination. As of this writing, Mitt Romney only has 105 (according to the New York Times). Santorum, in second place, has 71. Gingrich has 29, and Paul has 18. It would appear there are enough delegates left not only for a contested convention, but also for any of the contenders to emerge as the nominee before the convention.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Two things must be considered: the momentum and the money. There is a reason states vie, in every cycle, for an earlier spot on the calendar. How many times have we heard how unfair it is for Iowa or New Hampshire to do the selecting work of the nation? Delegates are selected democratically, but the sequential nature of the process makes psychology important.
I remember driving around Jackson, Mississippi on Election Day in ‘03 with a friend from the campaign. We turned right on a street blanketed with Haley Barbour signs. Not a Ronnie Musgrove sign in sight. My friend turned and gave me an enduring lesson in political science: “Who does that make you want to vote for?” Just look at what happened to Santorum after he won three contests a couple weeks ago and how his poll numbers shot up. Everybody wants to vote for a winner.
After dominating the last GOP debate, Mitt Romney will very likely win Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday. He should win most contests on Super Tuesday, with the possible exception of Tennessee and Georgia. His strength apparent, money coming in to the Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul campaigns will dry up – if it has not started to do so already. These three may limp their way to the convention. They may extract concessions in the party platform. But most likely, they will bow out in return for the promise of a Cabinet position.
It is for reasons analogous to these that the last contested conventions were 1948 (Republican nominee Thomas Dewey) and 1952 (Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson). For the last successful presidential nominee to come out of a contested election, you have to go even further back – to FDR in 1932. The 1976 Republican convention, at which many thought Ford would be unable to beat Ronald Reagan on the first ballot, went uncontested. If, in addition, Ted Kennedy was unable to force a contested convention in 1980 (with Carter the incumbent), and 1988 did not see one on the Democratic side despite the fact that Gary Hart’s withdrawal left no clear front-runner, the lesson should be clear: Whatever else happens, there will not be a contested Republican convention this year.
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