With Michigan native and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney possibly facing an embarrassing defeat in his old home state, there has been growing speculation that no presidential candidate will have a majority of delegates going into the Republican National Convention in Tampa, possibly resulting in a brokered convention.
Such speculation largely comes from pundits acting like kids on a trip who keep asking, “Are we there yet?” After today, only a small number of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination will have been won. While a Romney loss in the Michigan primary will probably cost him his shaky front-runner status, it could set up former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as the front-runner. With Romney distrusted by the conservative majority of Republican primary and caucus voters as an unprincipled flip-flopper, Santorum’s recent surge could establish him as the conservative alternative to Romney.
A clearer picture is likely to emerge on March 6, Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Santorum’s chief rival for conservative alternative to Romney, may get his last shot here. If Gingrich flops, Santorum could have the conservative base to himself, and that would probably produce enough votes in later primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination, possibly in April or May.
Multi-ballot and brokered conventions occurred in a bygone era, with the Republicans last going past the first ballot in 1948 and the Democrats in 1952. Nowadays, it’s a series of primaries and caucuses that produce a presidential nominee. A large field narrows as weaker candidates drop out, and a quick knock-out early in the process that seals the nomination rarely occurs.
The possibility of Santorum getting the nomination makes a lot of Republicans nervous. As an extremist religious fanatic who emphasizes cultural issues, Santorum is seen as a weak and unelectable candidate who would alienate women, moderates and independents. This could allow President Barack Obama to win by the largest Democratic presidential landslide since Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964, with Santorum’s weak showing dragging down the rest of the Republican ticket. The Democrats could take back the House, increase their Senate majority, and make gains at the state and local levels.
Those who talk of a brokered convention say that a new candidate is needed who is stronger than Santorum. But many Republicans, particularly conservatives, are unlikely to respond to someone who hasn’t gone through the nomination process. Possible new candidates include 2008 vice-presidential nominee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, all of whom have said they are not interested in running.
A new candidate would need time to get up to speed, and would face logistical challenges in raising money and setting up a campaign organization. As for the convention itself, in the past state party leaders were able to control their delegations. But today, if candidates release their delegates in a brokered scenario, the delegates are free to vote for whoever they want to support. In all likelihood, the primaries and caucuses will pick the Republican nominee and there will be no brokered convention. If Santorum leads the Republicans to disaster, it may be unavoidable.