Political junkies, take heart: A brokered convention is possible, if improbable. Using Rhodes Cook’s delegate count, I’ve made a spreadsheet that tabulates the results of different primary outcomes. If you use some imagination — but not too much — you can allocate the delegates in such a way that no candidate wins on the first ballot.
To secure the nomination, a candidate must get “a majority of the votes entitled to be cast in the convention,” according to GOP rules. Cook predicts there will be a total of 2,282 delegates*, so a candidate needs 1,142 votes to win. Here’s a not-impossible outcome: Mitt Romney wins 1,131 delegates, Newt Gingrich gets 954, and Ron Paul wins 181.
In this scenario, which is roughly based on current polls, Paul wins the Iowa caucuses with 25 percent of the vote. Romney places second with 20 percent and Gingrich third with 15 percent. After winning only 10 percent of the vote each, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum drop out of the race. Next, Romney wins New Hampshire, but with only 30 percent of the vote, as a newly invigorated Paul and a slowly rising Jon Huntsman grab 25 and 15 percent of the vote respectively. Realizing the jig is up, Huntsman suspends his campaign. Afterward, Gingrich triumphs in South Carolina with 50 percent of the vote as the anti-Romney forces coalesce around him. (Rick Perry, meanwhile, drops out, after finishing with a disappointing 10 percent in the Palmetto State.) Gingrich follows up that victory with a 55 percent win in Florida, solidifying his status as a major contender.
In other words, the race comes down to Romney, Gingrich, and Paul. Romney and Gingrich are the main contenders, but Paul wins about 10 percent of the vote in the primaries and 20 percent in the caucuses, where his dedicated followers are especially effective. (There’s some historical precedent to this speculation: In 2008, Paul won 17 percent of the vote in the Alaska caucuses and 18 percent of the vote in the Maine caucuses.) Unlike in 2008, however, Paul actually wins some delegates, because GOP rules now mandate that states that hold primaries before April distribute their delegates on a proportional basis. Moreover, the especially early states, including even New Hampshire, lose half their delegates as a penalty for holding their elections before February.
Romney wins northern states, such as Vermont, and Gingrich wins southern states, such as Tennessee. Conservatives in states Romney won in 2008 abandon him for Gingrich, decreasing his victory margin. (Let’s say he wins the Alaska caucuses, but only by 41 percent, for instance.) After April 1, when the winner-take-all primaries begin, Romney cleans up: He wins all the votes of big blue states such as New York, California, and New Jersey. But Gingrich holds his own, scoring strong wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio. When the delegates assemble in Tampa, no candidate has a majority.
Yes, even this implausible scenario has caveats: For it to work, the early primaries’ delegates would have comply with the election results, though there’s no legal requirement for them to do so. In states such as Iowa and Arizona, delegates aren’t bound to vote for the candidates who win their states. Second, included in these delegate counts are the state-party chairmen and national-committee members, who also are allowed to vote however they want. Third, various surprises could throw it off. In Louisiana, for instance, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in its primary, its delegates go to the convention uncommitted. Fourth, some delegates eliminated from the convention by the early-primary penalty may not stay eliminated. If all that stands between a candidate and the nomination is a state’s full number of delegates, it’s not inconceivable that they could push the party to drop the penalty.
In other words, my scenario is pure speculation. But with this spreadsheet, you can come up with your own scenarios. I don’t expect there to be a brokered convention, but it’s just plausible enough to keep interest in a candidate not currently in the field alive.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.
*Editor’s note: The Republican National Committee has recently revised its delegate count. Mississippi and Nebraska will each get an additional delegate, bringing the total to 2,286. As a result, a candidate will need 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.