The Looming Shadow of the Brokered GOP Convention 2016

The likelihood of a brokered Republican Convention is growing. By the numbers, there are currently eight candidates who have declared that they are running for President. They are: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki. Flush with SuperPAC cash, Jeb Bush will likely declare soon along with current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. We should also expect Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Ohio Governor John Kasich to enter the race as the barrier to entry gets lower and lower. It is also likely that Senator Lindsey Graham and former Texas Governor Rick Perry will enter the race as well as an outside chance that Chris Christie may make a foray into the game. All told, my count stands, roughly, around fifteen Republican candidates for President by the time the first debates roll around.

The Debates

Moderators of the upcoming debates have already made it clear that only the top ten-or-so candidates will be allowed to participate in a given debate. This is sensible, but will likely cause consternation for whatever candidates are being denied precious airtime to define their candidacies. One can expect a “second tier” debate hosted by eager online outlets to spring up quickly.

The merits of turning the political process into a reality TV show (as I mentioned above, the bar to entry is lowered every time another candidate enters the race), can be debated elsewhere. The real problem is that there are quite a few candidates who can make a legitimate claim on the Presidency.

Now, before I go and anger certain people’s supporters, I am just going to be going by the numbers and what common sense should be able to predict from the electorate that selected George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney as their nominees over the last decade. My predictions take into account the following influences on the race: no major foreign wars beyond the simmering tensions with Russia, the South China Sea, and ISIS; no major financial collapse; and the Supreme Court deciding in favor of marriage equality. This analysis also assumes that Hillary Clinton will be the far-frontrunner for the Democrats thereby making debates on the left little more than a distraction.

Here’s the rationale for each assumption:

– Regarding wars and simmering tensions. It’s impossible to accurately predict exactly what foreign policy issues will erupt at a given time. In order to make predictions about the Republican race, assuming that situations will get worse or get better is a shot in the dark. While it is likely to see Russian aggression shift towards the Baltic States (Latvia first, it seems) and Chinese brinksmanship in the Pacific, the potential for a full-blown military engagement is still remote. While the Article Five NATO provisions would require the United States to intervene in the event Russia invaded any Baltic State, as we have seen in Ukraine, the most likely scenario is the use of paramilitary irregulars to support dissident factions to overthrow the elected government. While there may be diplomatic crises (a Chinese ship sinking, a Russian plane being shot down), it’s unlikely to lead to a war. Similarly, we have to assume that the relative strength of ISIS will remain constant during the Republican primaries and that the Iranians will not go on an offensive against the Saudis or vice versa. The general reason for these foreign policy assumptions is to evaluate what candidates will likely have the most pull to the electorate on the right.

– Regarding no major financial collapse. As with foreign policy, it’s impossible to predict the effect on the campaign if the United States were thrown headlong into a major market disaster. Candidates thought otherwise unelectable may find themselves in an instant at the top of the ticket. However, predicting the race from a position of expecting crisis is not a good strategy.

– Regarding marriage equality. Unlike the other two categories where the prediction assumes the status quo, all indications point to the Supreme Court deciding in favor of marriage equality in the United States sometime in June of 2015. While this is not a foregone conclusion, any predictions as to the issues that will shape the 2016 mindset for voters should take into account the relative finality of this kind of decision. While there will be rhetoric and bluster initially about finding a way to deny gays and lesbians equal rights, all polling suggests overwhelming majorities of the American people support equality. Consequently, this issue will have far less significance for the majority of the Republican electorate than it seems to have right now. Moreover, additional weight is being put behind candidates who have staked out a moderate or progressive path on the issue rather than being wedded (pun completely intended) to the evangelical wing of the Party.

A further caveat is that we cannot assume any terrorist attack or disaster. The early race will be during hurricane season which may put Governor Jindal in the spotlight, but any assumptions like that are just idle speculation.

The Lay of the Land, 2016

So, as per the title: why is it looking like a brokered convention may be a reality in 2016 for the GOP?

First, what is a brokered convention? Very basically, exactly what it sounds like. We will know for several weeks (maybe months) before the Republican Convention next year whether any candidate will have won the nomination outright. Based on current numbers, there are 2470 potential delegates (http://www.thegreenpapers.com/P16/R-Alloc.phtml). States can generally be divided into two classes: “March 14 or Before” and “March 15 and After.” The first group of states will divide delegates to the convention based proportionally on votes. The second group will be winner-take all.

So, how many delegates are up for grabs in each?

The first group of states are: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada (these are the first real tests for candidates) then Colorado, Minnesota, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Louisiana, Hawaii, Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan, and Puerto Rico. Of these 21 states, 1021 delegates will be apportioned.

The rest of the 1449 delegates will be awarded as the race progresses and will be awarded to the winner of each state.

The magic number here is 1236. Because delegates are pledged to vote for their voters’ choice at the Convention (at least for the first several ballots or until released by the candidate), if a candidate gets to the magic number, he or she will be presumptively the nominee. Have you noticed the problem yet?

With around fifteen candidates in the race, the possibility of any one standing out enough to get a simple majority is daunting. Now, of course there will be dropouts, flameouts, and defections. There will be releases of delegates and endorsements. However, the big problem is looking at the race and what states are early in the race and what states are late and then looking at the potential candidates.

Breaking the Traditional Mold

For example, though we are still a long ways out from the Iowa caucuses, it looks very unlikely that Jeb Bush or a moderate Republican will be able to take the first-in-the-nation caucus. Rather, as it did in 2008 (Huckabee) and 2012 (Santorum), the state will likely go to the candidate asserting his or her conservative bona fides in the most forthright manner. While current polling shows Scott Walker leading the field in Iowa, I’ll hazard the guess to say that Ted Cruz will take the Hawkeye state narrowly beating out a moderate Republican and Rand Paul. Importantly, Iowa and the other early states are traditionally indicators of campaign strength. The problem this time around is that the quantity of candidates in the race will likely dilute any momentum loss by a disappointing finish. You can almost hear the speeches now “this is a very crowded field, the winner only won by less than ten percent, we are in this to win… etc.”

So, maybe we are down to thirteen or so after Iowa (let’s say someone pulls a “screeching Howard Dean” moment or something), then we move to New Hampshire. Where Iowa is a traditional must-win for the right-wing candidate, New Hampshire is the tradition must-win for the establishment candidate. Now, like the dilution in Iowa, it will be telling if the vote in New Hampshire is not a resounding victory for Jeb Bush. Specifically, a strong showing by Rand Paul as well as any moderate Governor (Christie, Pataki, or Kasich) making inroads will tarnish the Bush campaign in a major way. While Bush will certainly have the money to continue his campaign long into the Convention, a poor showing early will defeat any remaining inevitability storyline.

With the traditions blown to tatters in Iowa and New Hampshire and most of the candidates still in the race, the Nevada and South Carolina votes will be very interesting. Nevada, changing this year to a primary, was a firestop for Rand Paul until it changed from a caucus. South Carolina, home to Senator Lindsey Graham and boasting a hawkish electorate, will be a chance for the hard-right to make the hard sell that “Iowa doesn’t define our campaign, South Carolina does.”

Therefore, going into “Super Tuesday,” there is a real possibility that the delegate totals for about six candidates will be around the same. Without direction, and with other candidates’ home states on the Super Tuesday agenda, there will be no clear direction for those primary contests.

Applying Some Statistics

Even if 70% of the available delegates in the proportional phase go to the top four or five candidates, the totals for the “front runner” will be somewhere around 200-300 delegates (remember the magic number of 1236). Thus, of the remaining 1449, the top-tier candidate would have to secure 65% of the remaining races after Super Tuesday. Now, that is possible, but we are looking at a field where, after the first 21 races, there is a near-tie between at least four potential nominees. Even the best-case scenario, at this point, can’t envision an individual coming out of Super Tuesday with more than a 30% plurality. So, someone will have to be able to make the case that he or she, despite only having an early 30% support, should be able to carry that support to victory in 65% of the remaining votes.

The silver lining, at least silver for the winning candidate, is that a mere plurality in the winner-take-all states will give him or her the total delegate count. In what will likely be a major source of anger among voters (the majority of whom will likely have not voted for the candidate who carried their state), major states will be able to be carried with under 50% support.

Even if, by the time the race is well into the winner-take-all phase, it looks like a two-or-three man race, there is a chance that the number of outstanding delegates would not be enough to reach the magic number of supporters at the Convention. With enough foresight, some of the minor campaigns may focus on particular states to deprive a frontrunning candidate of support in that area in order to propel another frontrunner with fewer delegates into the lead in the given state. The reason for this is to force a brokered Convention. In the event there is no clear winner when the Republican Convention meets, the minor candidates will have more political power at the negotiating table.

As the race moves along, I intend to provide more commentary on the potential for a brokered Convention if the race, indeed, looks set to move in that direction. I apologize if some of the math in the post was off, but the facts used are current as of the end of May 2015.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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