Politics & Policy

The Write-In Bid That Almost Was

GOP consultants considered a write-in campaign for their preferred candidate.

How dissatisfied are Republicans with the current field of presidential candidates?

Sufficiently dissatisfied to flirt with a long-shot effort to draft Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, or Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan into the presidential race, despite the trio’s repeated statements that they’re not interested in running for the office.

The discussions began a few weeks before the New Hampshire primary, when one Republican consultant, who has worked for conservative Republican presidential candidates in the past but who is unaffiliated this cycle, wondered if it would be possible to repeat the results of the 1964 primary.

In 1964, the Republican party was deeply divided between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller. A small group of fans of Henry Cabot Lodge — Richard Nixon’s 1960 running mate who in 1964 served as U.S.ambassador to South Vietnam — launched a write-in campaign. The effort shocked the political world when Lodge won 36 percent of the vote, beating Goldwater’s 22 percent and Rockefeller’s 21 percent. Lodge somehow won the state without ever declaring his interest in the presidency or ever setting foot in the state.

Lodge began to think more seriously about running, and he ended up winning the Massachusetts and New Jersey primaries that year in a similar fashion. Obviously, Goldwater went on to win the Republican nomination in 1964, and he lost to Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election by a wide margin.

But to a couple of Republican consultants yearning for better, more unifying options than the current crop of candidates, the Lodge example offered a blueprint for a late entrant. The low expectations for a write-in bid added to the appeal of the plan; if the write-in bid finished with only a few percentage points, no harm was done. But a third- or second-place finish would generate enormous discussion.

Presuming the write-in candidate had finished respectably, he (or she) would still have time to qualify for the ballot in Rhode Island (January 21), West Virginia (January 28), Kentucky (January 31), Indiana (February 10), Pennsylvania (February 14), Delaware (February 24), Arkansas (March 1), Connecticut (March 2), Oregon (March 6), Nebraska (March 7), Montana (March 12), Utah (March 15), California (March 23), and South Dakota (March 27).

Most Republican caucuses do not have any formal filing deadline; to compete in those contests, the candidate would simply have needed a group of dedicated supporters registered to vote in those caucuses. These states include Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

The primary states still open to new candidates offer up to 623 delegates, and the caucus states still open to new candidates offer up to 371 delegates. That adds up to 994 delegates, which is less than the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. However, a strong performance in the remaining states would greatly enhance the likelihood of no candidate reaching the threshold. And that means, in short, a divided, dramatic, and probably very confusing run-up to the convention. ABC News summarizes:

If a single candidate fails to win 1,144 delegates, convention mayhem will likely ensue, and the nomination process will become a maze of state-party rules about when delegates are released from their binding and how strictly they’re bound. Arizona’s state law, for instance, requires delegates to use their “best efforts” to support the statewide winner. In Illinois, campaigns select their delegates and in the past have asked them to sign pledges of support — but it’s not entirely clear whether those pledges are binding.

The write-in bid was discussed among several prominent Republican officeholders and former officeholders, and the reaction was mixed. Few rejected the idea outright or claimed complete satisfaction with the current options in the GOP field, but even fewer wanted their names attached to a strange, late, high-risk effort that would most likely serve only to irk the eventual GOP nominee and perhaps the next president.

The consultants said the aim was not merely to create mischief, but to create “constructive mischief.”

The plan was to float all three popular non-candidates as options and see if Republicans coalesced behind any of them; if one of the three proved particularly popular, unaffiliated Republicans would begin mentioning the write-in option in the days before the primary.

For the candidates mentioned, the popularity might prove flattering but also embarrassing.

Jindal has endorsed Rick Perry and campaigned in Iowa for him. McDonnell has not endorsed any of the candidates but has said that he prefers candidates with gubernatorial experience and he has spoken repeatedly of his warm relationship with Perry. Ryan has said he will not endorse, citing his need to remain objective in his role with the national GOP’s “National Fundraising Trust.”

While the deadlines for most of the above states are weeks away, the chances of a late addition to the field diminish by the day. A candidate would have to jump into the race cold and undoubtedly would face furious attacks from the front runner Mitt Romney and his super PACs. The limited time leaves little room for errors (as many candidates learned with Virginia’s ballot-qualification requirements).

But perhaps the never-quite-past-the-drawing-board write-in effort is a warning sign to the front runner of just how much more work he needs to do to quell fears among Republicans that he is the best choice to lead America beginning on Jan. 20, 2013.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


The Latest