So You’re Telling Me There’s A Chance

By: Chris Ashby and Katherine Maxwell*

A few weeks ago—between  the “Santorum Sweep” on February 7 and Mitt Romney’s rebound with victories in Michigan and Arizona on February 28—it became impossible for a new candidate to jump into the GOP race for President and win the nomination outright.

Prior to the third week of February, it was still legally and mathematically possible for a new candidate to enter the race, run the table, and win a majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention in Tampa.  That window, narrow as it was, is now closed.

But that doesn’t mean that a late entrant couldn’t emerge from Tampa with the nomination.  That’s right.  We’re telling you there’s a chance.  And we’re even giving you the road map.

Cable news and the blogosphere have been buzzing about the possibility that no candidate will win a majority of delegates prior to the opening of the Convention on August 27.  Out of such a situation, a “brokered convention” could emerge, in which influential party insiders coalesce around a candidate—perhaps one of the four existing candidates, but more likely someone who did not contest the nomination through the primaries and caucuses—and use their political power to deliver large blocks of delegate votes for the chosen candidate.

There is a different possibility, however—an “open convention.”  In an open convention scenario, no one candidate would have a first ballot majority of delegates, most likely because a new candidate would have gotten into the race late, run strong, and denied the nomination to any of the other candidates.  Such a candidate would arrive in Tampa with a head of steam.  His or her momentum would sway most of the uncommitted delegates, blunt the power of party bosses who might attempt to steer the nomination to someone else, and prove to be a magnetic force to delegates as they became unbound or were released after the first and subsequent ballots.  The open convention thus would not be brokered in back rooms, but rather would remain open and would be won on the floor.

The list of would-be candidates who could even think about attempting a maneuver of this degree of difficulty is obviously short—very short.  But there are certainly two, and maybe as many as four or five, who could pull it off.  To deny a first ballot majority of delegates to any other candidate, and force the GOP nomination fight to an open convention, here is what a late entering candidate would have to do:

1.  Immediately get on the ballot Montana (deadline 3/12), Utah (3/15), California (3/23) and South Dakota (3/27).  To get on the ballot in these four states requires little more than filing papers, and puts as many as 266 delegates up for grabs.

2.  Take a shot at putting as many as 84 more delegates into play by getting on the ballot in two states which require petition drives:  Nebraska (100 signatures per congressional district by 3/7) and New Jersey (1,000 signatures statewide by 4/2).  (Oregon (28 delegates), which requires 5,000 signatures statewide or 1,000 per congressional district by March 6, is probably impossible.)

3.  Contest the mid-March caucuses:  Kansas (3/10), Hawaii (3/13) and Missouri (3/17), with up to 112 delegates between them.  (Six more states will hold caucuses between now and Super Tuesday, but it likely is too late to contest them in any serious way.)

4.  Plan to run as a write-in candidate in the District of Columbia (4/3), Wisconsin (4/3), Pennsylvania (4/24) and Rhode Island (4/24) primaries.  There is plenty of time to wage effective write-in campaigns in those states, as well as later in West Virginia (5/8) and Oregon (5/15).  There are 211 delegate votes available in those six contests.  (Realistically, there is not enough time to mount a credible write-in effort before the Massachusetts primary (41 delegates) on Super Tuesday.)

Those four steps constitute a two-month, 14-state campaign for as many as 673 delegates.  Of course, with 2,286 delegates to the Convention this year, and 1,144 needed to win a first ballot majority, 674 delegates would not necessarily be enough to deny the nomination to a candidate who breaks away from the pack on or after Super Tuesday, or simply remains standing as others fold.

What’s more, while a late entrant stands to win as many as 673 delegates, he or she would not win all 673 delegates.  This is because a number of the 14 states will be awarding their delegates on something other than a winner-take-all basis—either proportional, winner-take-all by congressional district, or a hybrid method.  Thus, a late-entering candidate could finish first in all 14 states, but garner less than 673 delegates, perhaps substantially less.

For this reason, in addition to campaigning in the 14 states identified above, a new candidate would have to do two more things.  First, when the Convention is gaveled to order, delegations from Colorado (36 delegates), Illinois (69), Iowa (28), Maine (24), Montana (26), North Dakota (28), Pennsylvania (72), and Wyoming (29) all will be unbound.  The Louisiana (25) and Minnesota (40) delegations may be unbound too.  And for the first ballot, the Ohio (63) and Arizona (29) delegations are not legally bound, but rather are bound “morally” and by “best efforts,” respectively, making them ripe to be picked off by a momentum-fueled candidate.  84 more delegates—state party chairs, national committeemen and national committeewomen from 28 states—also will be unbound.  Altogether, that’s 753 uncommitted delegates when the gavel drops.

Second, a late entrant could urge voters in North Carolina (55 delegates) to vote “no preference” in that state’s primary on May 8, and encourage Kentucky voters (45 delegates) to vote “uncommitted” on May 22.  If successful in convincing voters in those two states that a no preference or uncommitted vote was effectively a vote for the late entering candidate, that candidate might be able to expand the universe of uncommitted delegates by as many as 100.

In the final analysis, between the 14-state campaign outlined above and the universe of uncommitted delegates as it could exist on Day One of the Convention, there are a total of 1,526 delegates that still could be won by a late entering candidate.  We do not believe that any candidate could win them all—too many states are awarding delegates proportionally this year, ballot access deadlines are looming in a few states, and some percentage of uncommitted delegates may feel bound to vote for the winner of their state’s primary or caucus.    If a late entrant could win half or more, however, it might just be enough to deny a first ballot nomination to one of the four existing candidates—especially if three or more of them stay in the race all the way to Tampa.+

Having sketched out what’s possible, a dose of reality is now in order.  As noted above, we think there are two, and maybe as many as five, candidates who might be “big” enough to win the nomination in this manner.  And with each passing day, it becomes more and more unlikely that any one of them could or will actually do it.

This year, however, is truly unlike any other—in more ways than one.  Consider this:  Candidate-specific Super PACs are a big part of the new political reality.  For the past several presidential elections, the biggest barrier to entry has been the mounting cost of national politics.  More than one plausible candidate has been deterred from making the race because she or he did not have the network, time and resources necessary to raise—in $2300 or $2500 increments—the many, many millions of dollars necessary to compete and win in a presidential election.

This year, though, the most expensive aspects of a national campaign—voter identification, mail, TV, and voter turnout—could be handled by a SuperPAC.  Presently, there is plenty of political talent and money sitting on the sidelines that could manage and fund such an organization.  By placing a trusted former aide at the helm, and securing a blessing of the sort that President Obama gave to Priorities USA just a few weeks ago, the SuperPAC would be well-positioned for immediate success.  In the meantime, freed from the burden of raising multiple tens of millions of dollars in hard dollar increments, a late entering candidate could focus on getting on the ballot, developing a message, traveling the country, and delivering that message to voters in person, through earned media, and via the Internet and social media.

If all this seems like too long a shot, so too did the presidential campaign of a former Pennsylvania Senator who lost his last election by more than 25 points.

Even at this late stage, a majority of Republicans are telling pollsters that they are still not satisfied with the current field of candidates.  Schizophrenic national polls and split decisions in the early primary states bear that sentiment out.  Nothing about the state of the race or the candidates remaining in it provides any basis for believing this dynamic will change anytime soon.  If GOP voters truly want another choice, there’s still a chance.

*  First-year law student, University of Richmond School of Law.

+  The number of candidates remaining in the race at this relatively late stage, the volatile nature of the Republican primary electorate this year, and the number of states which will be awarding at least some delegates proportionally make it impossible to predict with certainty how many delegates it would take to prevent a first ballot victory.  For instance, if two or more of the existing candidates drop out of the race, it will take more delegates to deny the nomination to the remaining candidate(s).  If three or all of the existing candidates continue their campaigns, and continue to split delegates, it will take fewer delegates to deny someone a first ballot win.