Politics & Policy

Convention Wisdom

A Minneapolis floor fight is not so far-fetched.

The common wisdom offered two possible outcomes in the race for the Republican nomination. In one scenario, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was to clean up early, and the momentum from early state victories was to carry him to a strong enough February 5 performance to stop former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his tracks.

The other possible outcome was the vindication of Giuliani’s “late-state” strategy. Despite losing in the early states, Giuliani was to make a strong stand in Florida on Jan. 29, then win most of the 22 state contests that are held on (or through) Feb. 5. This was supposed to make him the runaway leader, giving him the nomination.

It seemed reasonable enough a month ago, but recent events throw doubt upon both scenarios. Not only are both frontrunners in trouble, but there is also the matter of the extremely complicated, state-by-state process of selecting delegates — a process whose successful, early conclusion decreases in likelihood as the number of apparently viable candidates increases and the frontrunners’ leads decrease. The rules for awarding delegates, which have mattered little in recent presidential primaries with clear winners, are so complex as to boggle the mind.

The February 5 Super-Duper Tuesday is something completely new — it could have all kinds of unintended consequences. In the past, the large number of late delegates has allowed voters to unite around a single candidate late in the game, after he proved himself early on. This will not be so easy this time, as Republican voters will choose 1,102 of roughly 2,500 delegates on a single day, not knowing what their fellow Republicans will do in other states. Given this dynamic, and the lack of a clear frontrunner at the moment, the odds of a brokered convention have never been better.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has surged ahead in early states, but for now he lacks an organization to win in many states after Feb. 5. Even if he fades in the next month, his supporters are sufficiently dedicated to him that he will not disappear entirely.

Romney’s support is much less stout, and he has slipped in Iowa. Giuliani is fading in every national poll and in some key states. He has sunk each day for a week under the weight of the so-called “shag-fund” story and in some polls he is no longer even the national frontrunner. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) stubbornly refuses to disappear, hanging on to enough support in New Hampshire that he could produce a surprise one month from now and suddenly revive. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.) is not dead yet — he could be the beneficiary of a Huckabee implosion. Even Rep. Ron Paul (R., Tex.) is relevant, considering his apparent lead in cash.

Republicans have been faced with a late leveling of the field — an overabundance of viable candidates that has resulted from persistent dissatisfaction with the purported frontrunners. As unlikely as it may seem, it could lead them into every political junkie’s nirvana: a political convention whose proceedings actually matter.

Might No One Win?

For a clean nominating process, one candidate must enter next year’s convention in Minneapolis with half the delegates — that is 1,191 delegates, or 1,259 if sanctions against several states are lifted. This was easy in 2000, when there were only two viable candidates. It was relatively easy in 1996, when there was a clear establishment favorite. Moreover, Bob Dole’s decisive seven-state sweep on Super Tuesday effectively gave him control of the late contests, where many delegates were still at stake.

This time, however, there are too many candidates, and no establishment favorite. And after Super Tuesday, there will not be nearly as many delegates to be won. Therefore, a clean process and a convention full of merely symbolic speeches is far from guaranteed. Giuliani is still the man to beat, but his odds would be long in a brokered Republican convention. The burden rests on Rudy to prevent one — to get as close to 50 percent of the delegates as possible. And the very difficulty of this task gives other candidates an incentive to stick around and fight in late contests, further complicating everything.

It is difficult to do real justice to this topic. This website is extremely helpful, and calls to some experienced Republican consultants not aligned with any presidential candidate are a good start — and both contributed to this guess-estimating article. Additional calls to all 50 secretaries of state for legal opinions might change things, so there may be a few things wrong here — this is not an exact science, and this piece doesn’t even consider the issue of delegates that are “committed” or “uncommitted.” Still, we can construct a plausible scenario — a scenario that is reasonably favorable to Giuliani — and work out the delegate math to see what sort of margin of error he has.

We must bear the chronology in mind, but we must also start with what appears most certain. First, there are some delegates that Giuliani simply will not win. A few of the state parties use a pure “winner take all” system in selecting delegates. Utah is one of them — on Feb. 5, it will award all of its 36 delegates to Romney. It also appears likely (at one point it did not) that Arizona will award its 53 delegates to McCain. Massachusetts will probably give all 40 delegates to Romney if he remains in the race for that primary in early March.

Other states award some at-large delegates to the statewide winner, and some to the winner of each congressional district. Assuming (conservatively) that the statewide winners take at least one-third of the districts in each state, South Carolina will award at least 35 of its delegates to someone other than Rudy. Thompson led Georgia in September, but Huckabee might be the one to take at least 44 delegates there (“Fair Tax is unbeatable in that state,” one southern GOP political consultant tells me). He should also receive at least 33 in Oklahoma. Wyoming’s nominating convention will likely give Romney all or nearly all of the state’s 28 delegates (or 14 if party sanctions hold).

Rudy will receive few, if any, of Iowa’s 41 delegates, which are chosen in a painfully complicated four-step process lasting months after the January caucus. Other candidates will likely get at least 18 of New Hampshire’s 24 delegates, which are awarded proportionally.

So far, that makes for a very conservative estimate of 352 delegates, most of them chosen early, that will likely go to someone other than Giuliani. We’ve left 51 district delegates hanging in these states — Rudy will get some of those, but certainly not all — we’ll give him 30.

What about the states where Rudy is favored? Giuliani’s supporters made sure that New Jersey adopted “winner-take-all.” The mayor will probably win everything in Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island. These account for 190 delegates.

Florida is Giuliani’s best big early prospect. If Republicans back off from their penalty that would deprive the state of half its delegates, it will split 75 of its 114 delegates among the winners of its congressional districts (three each). Let’s give Rudy a big win and a generous 80 from the Sunshine State.

Then there are the two big states that Giuliani is supposedly counting on — New York and California. Both award all or nearly all of their delegates to the winner of each congressional district, not the statewide winner. Rudy will probably win most of the districts in New York — in fact, let’s just assume that he gets all 101 delegates (for a total of 371).

But what about California? It votes on Feb. 5. If Rudy gets 35 percent of the vote there — slightly better than his level in the most recent poll — it is unlikely that he would get even half of the state’s 173 delegates. It could be a wash, as will many states that award all or nearly all delegates proportionally and/or by Congressional District: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Tennessee. Most of these are chosen on Feb. 5, and several on other candidates’ home turf. Throw in the June contest in South Dakota, and you get 858 delegates that will be fractured.

Wisconsin, Ohio, Maryland, and a few other states are only slightly more generous to the statewide winner, still awarding a majority of the delegates to the winners of congressional districts. If Giuliani hasn’t already run the table by the time they vote, add 162 more delegates into the “wash” category.

We have now covered nearly three-fourths of the Republican delegates. Under the generous assumption that Giuliani gets 40 percent of the “wash” delegates, the estimated running total looks something like this:

Giuliani: 809

All Others: 985

Under this relatively rosy scenario, Rudy has 33 percent of all delegates, with about a quarter left to be chosen. To get a majority, he would have to win most of the other battles in close states.

He would certainly need Missouri, which on Super Tuesday will give all 58 delegates to the winner. Giuliani led there in a poll last month, but Romney and others were still in the hunt — Huckabee has probably improved there as well, and could even be in the lead. Vermont, for which I cannot find any polls since February, will award all 14 delegates to the winner on March 4. The early Nevada caucus, in which Giuliani still led Romney last month, will determine 34 delegates, most going to the statewide winner.

Pennsylvanians will split up their 75 delegates in late April, with voters selecting individual delegates instead of the candidates themselves (they will also have the chance to select a candidate on a separate ballot, but this vote is “advisory” and non-binding). That gives a big advantage to Rudy, Romney, and possibly McCain — the candidates with the best organizational structures and the best endorsements. Other big fights could come in the Alaska, Maine and Minnesota caucuses, and in North Dakota. Idaho and Oregon award delegates proportionally. Colorado awards half by congressional district, half in a state convention.

A Big Mess

There is a clear path for Rudy to get 50 percent before the convention. Yet it is like a path up the mountainside — it is steep, and he could fall right off the cliff if even the slightest thing goes wrong. He must blow everyone away with “shock and awe” on Feb. 5, leaving absolutely no room for doubt. In order to do that, he might also need a few earlier victories, just to prevent a Super Tuesday disappointment. A loss or even a disappointingly close win in Florida could unravel him completely. And Rudy is already slipping. Yet even if he unravels, he could easily enter the national convention with a bare plurality of delegates, most of them gained on a single day in February.

Things might change if other candidates drop out early, but probably only if they drop out before Feb. 5. Even if things do change, they might not get any better for Rudy. Where would the dropouts’ supporters go? If Mitt Romney exits the race early, will his supporters really embrace Giuliani instead of, say, McCain or Huckabee? This is doubly true of Huckabee voters. Thompson would be more likely to endorse McCain. McCain would appear the most likely to endorse Giuliani, but what if he does well in New Hampshire and does not drop out? After a certain point, McCain might have an incentive to stay in it and try to win in a convention, where other candidates’ delegates might prefer him to Rudy and view him as the only one capable of winning the general election.

It may seem fanciful to imagine a multiple-ballot floor fight at the nominating convention, in which delegates could even choose someone who isn’t currently in the race. But as the Republican field levels out, it has never appeared more likely than it does right now.

A brokered convention, far from merely being a big mess, could also be very good for the Republican party. It would certainly make for better ratings, and perhaps a bigger boost for the nominee, than the sterile dog and pony shows that made up previous conventions. A brokered convention would allow for an airing of grievances for a party that has to decide its direction after a major loss.

Republicans might do well to welcome the chaos.

CORRECTION: This piece mistakenly named Texas as a Super Tuesday state. NRO apologizes for the error.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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