For years, political junkies have yearned for a brokered national convention. But to their quadrennial dismay, old-style floor fights and smoke-filled rooms have given way to a modern presidential nominating process based on hard-fought primaries and media-generated momentum.
The last open GOP convention was held 68 years ago, when New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey won the 1948 nomination on the third ballot. More recently, party elites have united around likely victors — based on key primary wins and national poll numbers — well before the eventual nominees accumulated delegate majorities. That happened with Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCainJohn McCainMeghan McCain fires back at Drudge over ‘obnoxious’ headline Ryan: Obama putting 'pet' projects above troops The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996. Of course, these were all conventional politicians.
But Trump is not a conventional politician. He has never held office, voted for or against a bill in Congress or executed a public policy decision. Ideologically, he's undiscovered territory. Stylistically, he says things other politicians would never utter, and the media covers every syllable. Trump is sui generis, and that terrifies the party's high command.
Should Trump go to Cleveland with a near majority of delegates — let's say 50 or 60 votes shy of the 1,236 needed to win — it's probable he could wheel-and-deal his way to a majority. But if he's short by a couple of hundred delegates, all bets are off.
To beat Trump, his adversaries would need to unite around a single alternative. If Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzPoll: Majority of GOP voters wish they chose another presidential nominee Trump attacking immigration issue openly and honestly Election 2016: A choice between Goldfinger and Darth Vader MORE runs second, he would position himself as the natural choice, an outsider who is also a true conservative. Nevertheless, making the delegate math work for Cruz would be difficult as long as Trump stays in the race. Cruz would have to fuse together around Trump a coalition of his own base (ideologues, evangelicals, Tea Party supporters) with center-right establishment types (Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioPoll: Majority of GOP voters wish they chose another presidential nominee The Trail 2016: Trump the Politician Christie: Critics of Medicaid expansion have been 'proven wrong' MORE, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina). That would be a tall order, indeed.
An easier path out of deadlock would be a Trump-Cruz ticket. Such a combination would give Trump what he wants, the presidential nomination, and give the 45-year old Cruz, should he accept it, a national platform to shape a future presidential bid. Of course, it would also give party professionals palpitations. But at that point, they may not have the votes to stop it.
Should he fare well in the primaries, Rubio would be in a strong position to unite anti-Trump factions as a compromise choice. He could move right, or center, as needed, and he'd have a much better chance (at least based on current poll numbers) of convincing party activists that he would beat probably Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPoll: Majority of GOP voters wish they chose another presidential nominee Trump campaign CEO met with ex-Carter adviser Trump surrogate apologizes for tweeting cartoon of Clinton in blackface MORE. The same could apply to Christie. His bluntness would appeal to populists looking for a strong leader and establishment types looking for a winner.
But what if nobody can break the deadlock? One option is for Trump to play kingmaker and to throw his support to someone else. Another option is to look outside the box––House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Obama putting 'pet' projects above troops Tax professors urge House to reject impeachment of IRS chief Juan Williams: Trump's race politics will destroy GOP MORE (R-Wis.), perhaps? But that's highly doubtful; party activists would be infuriated.
There is also party Rule 40 to consider. It requires that a GOP presidential candidate must have a majority of the delegates from each of at least eight states to be placed into nomination at the convention. If that obscure directive isn't changed, it could alter the dynamics of a floor fight in unpredictable ways.
Extraordinary nomination scenarios like these have a way of exploding in the fire of combat. But if Republicans go to Cleveland without a nominee, and have to face multiple ballots to select one, there is one thing we know for sure: Political junkies all over America will rejoice in the drama. It may even be worth the 68-year wait.
Faucheux is president of Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm based in Washington. He has taught courses in politics at George Washington University and is the author or editor of seven books on politics, including "Running for Office." He also publishes Lunchtime Politics, a daily newsletter on polls.