Ask around and you’ll hear a consistent theme from political strategists in the Republican party: The 2016 primary is wide open.
“It is by far the most interesting presidential year since I’ve been involved [in Republican politics],” says Steve Munisteri, a senior adviser to Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.).
How interesting? Top-tier presidential campaigns are preparing for the still-unlikely scenario that the nomination fight goes all the way to the 2016 Republican National Convention. There hasn’t been a brokered convention since 1976, but the strength of the GOP field, when coupled with the proliferation of super PACs, increases the chances that several candidates could show up in Cleveland next July with an army of delegates at their backs.
“It’s certainly more likely now than it’s been in any prior election, going back to 1976,” Thor Hearn, the general counsel to George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, tells National Review. “I don’t put it as a high likelihood, but it’s a much more realistic probability than it’s been in any recent experience.”
Between Paul, former governor Jeb Bush (R., Fla.), Governor Scott Walker (R., Wis.), and Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a presidential contender could struggle to build the momentum needed to take control of the race in the early primary states. The campaign gets even more complicated if former governor Mike Huckabee (R., Ark.) repeats his success in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
With the support of just a few wealthy donors, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Governor John Kasich (R., Ohio), could mount the kind of “favorite son” candidacies that were a hallmark of brokered conventions decades ago, GOP operatives suggest.
‘When even Rick Santorum could have $20 million in a super PAC, all the rules are scrambled,’ says one unaligned Republican strategist. ‘Everyone has nukes — including a whole bunch of non-state actors.’
“When even Rick Santorum could have $20 million in a super PAC, all the rules are scrambled,” says one unaligned Republican strategist. “Everyone has nukes — including a whole bunch of non-state actors.”
A shorter nomination process, with several candidates dropping out after suffering early defeats, remains the most likely outcome. “You’d have to have an awful lot of money to survive a shutout in the four early states,” says David Norcross, a former RNC Rules Committee chairman who regards the idea of a brokered convention as a perennial rumor that “never gets close to happening.”
And yet, there is one candidate who could fit that description. Bush is trying to raise $100 million for his super PAC even as his team prepares for the possibility of losing all four of the early states.
“They’re certainly [relaying] that message in their fundraising community,” one person who has attended Bush fundraisers tells NR. “To donors, they’re trying to manage expectations [by] saying, ‘Our objective here is to make it to the convention, not necessarily to win the first primaries.’”
#related#GOP strategists think that if a single candidate fails to win two of the first four races — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — the elections that take place immediately after those states vote could turn out any number of ways. And because RNC rules require the states that hold elections before March 15 to award their delegates proportionally, the later races could have a significant influence on the outcome of the nomination process.
“If one candidate wins one winner-take-all [state] and a couple other candidates win other winner-take-all [states], you can see a scenario where it’s possible that nobody would have 50 percent of the delegates going into the convention,” Munisteri says, acknowledging that the Paul campaign is preparing for a lengthy fight. “The key strategy for us is to focus on the immediate states while at the same time being prepared to react quickly to the later states.”
Back in 2012, Ron Paul said that a brokered convention was “very likely” when nothing could have been further from the truth. Three years later, the idea has gone mainstream. “This is the first time this has ever been real,” says a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney.
Not everyone is so sure, of course. Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party — and a current adviser to former governor Rick Perry (R., Texas) — argues that presidential races cost too much money for candidates to remain in contention after suffering early defeats.
“It’s close to impossible,” says Dawson, who commissioned a 150-page study of the matter in 2012 following Newt Gingrich’s surprise win in South Carolina. “The days when there were real brokered conventions were when you had state parties doing the nomination process and not primaries; [e.g.], South Carolina before 1980.”
Only one scenario could produce such an outcome, Dawson estimates. “You’ve got to have somebody in second or third place win California [which allocates 172 delegates], then you’ve got a conversation,” he says. “But how does that happen? Beats the hell out of me.” TV-ad time in California costs an enormous amount of money, far too much for a typical defeated candidate to afford.
Defeated or not, Jeb Bush will not have a typical war-chest. “For the first time in many years, California could be in play,” says a delegate who sat on the RNC Rules Committee in 2012.
If he’s right, the 2016 Republican presidential primary might just become the most interesting race in modern political history.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.