No Clinch in Sight

02.17.12

The GOP’s Chaotic Primary Calendar Makes Early Nomination Clinch Tough

The party’s primary schedule makes it unlikely that a candidate will amass the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination before late May or even June, ensuring a bloody primary battle—and even raising the possibility of a brokered convention.

With Texas court-ordered to move its primary back to at least May 28, the delegate math it takes to win the GOP nomination just got a lot tougher.

Now, the likelihood that any candidate will clinch the nomination before late May or even June seems increasingly distant. After all, the Lone Star State alone offers 155 delegates—more than one tenth the total needed to get to the nomination holy grail of 1,144. And the vision of a brokered convention is edging from overheated political-junkie fantasy to dim possibility, with the odds up to 26 percent on the Internet gambling site Intrade.

All this is deep in the land of hypotheticals until we see how Super Tuesday breaks. Mitt Romney still has a decided edge in delegates to date, along with the money and organization to successfully run a long primary race. But if Rick Santorum continues his swing of wins in the Midwest and carries Romney’s home state of Michigan, Mitt’s inevitability and electability myths will be shattered. Republican Party leaders will go from spooked to something approaching outright panic.

The irony is that the Republican calendar now creating mass heartburn was put in place explicitly to help candidates like Romney. Back in 2008, Romney was beloved by conservative activists, evangelicals, and the right-wing, talk-radio crowd. At the time, there was much grousing about how center-right John McCain was able to secure the nomination with a few early wins in all-or-nothing states. So party leaders had the bright idea of taking a page from the Democrats' playbook and made almost three fourths of the states proportional. This made it much harder for any one candidate to clinch the nomination early. A preponderance of caucuses also ensured that activists would have a chance to drive the process. But the best-laid plans sometimes have unintended consequences.

Play around with the CNN delegate calculator and you can see that even if Romney were to win every contest going forward with 100 percent of the delegates (that’s called kickin’ it North Korea-style) he still wouldn’t reach 1,144 until April 3. Under a similar extreme scenario, it would take Rick Santorum until April 23. Here’s the real kicker: If Romney and Santorum were to split the delegates going forward and each were to carry five of the 10 all-or-nothing contests, neither candidate would win enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

Add to that mix the fact that Ron Paul’s got very little reason to not go all the way to Tampa collecting delegates along the way—and Newt Gingrich has sworn less convincingly to do the same—and the math gets even more daunting for Team Mitt.

They have one ace up their sleeve—Utah. It’s currently scheduled last in the primary calendar, on June 26, with 40 delegates; winner-take-all in a state that is famously Mormon-dominated. It could serve as a backstop for Mitt, bringing him over the top at the last possible moment.

But if no candidate hits 1,144 by the end of the process, buy some tickets and head to Tampa, because this is going to be one wild and weird party convention. Remember, all delegates are released after the first ballot. The Ron Paul-ites have been fantasizing about this scenario, and Sarah Palin has started to talk in circles about how she just might be available to ‘help’ in such an eventuality.

America hasn’t seen a true brokered convention since 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson emerged with the Democratic nomination despite Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver winning more delegates. One upside: in the age of social media, we’d have more access to what goes on in smoke-filled backrooms than ever before.

The irony is that the Republican calendar is now creating mass heartburn.

Some people’s fantasies are other people’s nightmares. There are conservatives earnestly hoping that a more perfect candidate will emerge from the August heat of Tampa. Democrats are watching the cage-match primary tactics with something like unrestrained glee. But it all must feel like a cruel joke to Mitt Romney. He is among the most disciplined and organized of men, and the creeping knowledge that the math might not add up in the end is enough to make him wake up in cold sweats.

The chaos of the Republican calendar means that at the very least we are in for a bloody primary battle. The factional divisions inside the GOP are deep, and increasingly reflect regional divides that are as much cultural as political. But the longer this fight goes on, the more candidates will be forced to play to the far right, making it even more difficult for the eventual nominee to tack back to the center and appeal to independent voters. The stark fact of the delegate math means that there is no easy way around this problem for the party faithful. This goat rodeo is going to go on for a long time. Bet on it.