A brokered convention is more plausible this year than it has been for a generation, as the fight drags on for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
The scenario leaves many GOP insiders petrified of the damage the party could suffer. Yet some dissenting voices insist there would be a silver lining to the cloud. They hold out the possibility of a convention of such drama and intrigue that it would energize party activists and mesmerize the broader public.
A brokered convention takes place when no candidate has secured enough delegates over the course of the primary process to clinch the nomination outright. The ultimate decision is then made on the convention floor, with delegates who are not legally bound to a particular candidate being the target of fierce persuasive tactics.
Republicans have not experienced such a scenario since 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly held off a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan.
To become this year’s GOP standard-bearer, a candidate needs to secure the support of 1,144 delegates when the party meets in Tampa in late August.
Different organizations have different tallies of where the delegate fight now stands — a fact that is itself testament to the byzantine complexity of the rules — but the most widely accepted estimate is that of The Associated Press (AP).
The AP currently gives Mitt Romney 495 delegates to Rick Santorum’s 252 delegates. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, according to the organization, have the support of 131 and 48 delegates respectively.
Romney has a decent shot at reaching the magic number by the time the primary process ends in Utah on June 26. But aides to Santorum and Gingrich no longer bother to disguise that the essence of their strategy is to frustrate Romney. They, too, have a credible chance of meeting their goal.
The prospect causes tremors along the whole Republican spectrum.
Mike Huckabee, who was the favored candidate of social conservatives four years ago, told Fox News this weekend that a brokered convention would amount to a “train-wreck” and “a disaster for the Republican Party.”
Last week, Vin Weber, a Romney supporter and a much more ‘establishment’ figure than Huckabee, told CBS News: “If the Republican convention is a mish-mash of conspiracy theories and backroom dealings and competition back and forth...we’re going to start out in a deep, deep hole” for the general election against President Obama.
The fear that a brokered convention would gift reelection to Obama may be Romney’s trump card. It is virtually certain that he will have more delegates than anyone else after the primary process ends. He could then appeal to super-delegates to commit to him before the convention begins, arguing that they would be averting chaos by doing so.
But not everyone is convinced that a brokered convention would spell doom for the GOP. Last month, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that she “wouldn’t be afraid” of such an outcome and that it “would perhaps be very good.”
Conservatives, especially those most trenchantly opposed to Romney, now have a vested interest in arguing that a brokered convention would be fine — and that the element of uncertainly might actually deliver a boost.
Some respected GOP consultants agree with them.
“Conventions are just hideously boring these days and have become more so, gradually, over the course of my lifetime,” Republican strategist Curt Anderson told The Hill. A brokered convention, he added, “could make for an actual event that would interest people.”
(Anderson worked for the ill-starred presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, but is not aligned with any candidate still in the race.)
Keith Appell also held out the possibility that a new candidate could come forward at the convention, presenting themselves as a ‘unity’ choice, capable of bringing together supporters of both Romney and Santorum. Names like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and even Palin herself have been mentioned.
Some say this outcome is especially a long shot. But Appell argues that, while a brokered convention remains unlikely on balance, if it were to occur, the entry of a last-minute candidate would be “a very real possibility — and that is going to add to the drama, to the allure, if that happens.”
Appell added: “It could be utterly fascinating. We don’t know for sure who will win, or will someone new be nominated?”
Still, even if some Republicans share Appell’s view, those who are happiest about the possibility of a brokered convention are Democrats. Many Obama supporters view the idea with outright glee.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane told The Hill that he believes a brokered convention is highly unlikely.
“But if the Republicans want to have a brokered convention — something that would arrest and dissipate any sense of momentum that they would otherwise expect to get coming out of that convention — then I’m all for it,” he said with a laugh.
“I will offer my help, pro-bono, to make a brokered convention possible.”