Next Up: The Endless Primary

It’s never too early to hope for a brokered convention!

Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney

Karl Rove says“we are likely to see several other candidates think seriously about getting in” on the GOP primary. His intentions are clear: He’s making life unpleasant for Rick Perry. He’s also telling the truth. Perry just entered the race after weeks and weeks of hype, and he hasn’t settled anything. The din of the draft campaigns— Ryan! Christie! Rudy! Palin! hell, even Pataki!—rings just as loud and fills just as many midday Fox News segments.

Democrats, who have so little to be cheery about, are cheery about this. Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky sort of likes the idea of a bone-crunching, time-sucking Republican primary.

“It’s an internal family discussion that plays out in public,” Dvorsky says. “While they’re doing that, we’re able to take our messaging, take our field organization, and begin it. We’ve had months of a jump on this, and we’re going to get months more. It’s a historical change for them. Gone are the days when it’s ‘Bob Dole’s turn,’ and they have their next guy up.”

Once people start voting, of course, the field will narrow. Maybe. Can Mitt Romney and Rick Perry stay deadlocked well into 2012? Can the legions of Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul sweep the caucuses and refuse to quit? Can Jon Huntsman ironically tweet his way to victory in the Puerto Rico primary and become the power broker at the Tampa convention a year from now, summoning candidates into his hotel suite to lecture them on global-warming data?

Theoretically. Sort of. The Republican primary schedule is still in flux, and there’s time for states to try power plays that will move the map around. Based on the moves so far, though—California moving from February to June, Florida punting its timing decision to an independent committee—there will be nothing like of 2008’s 22-state Super Tuesday to sort of the field. Fewer states will go winner-take-all and award all of their delegates to the candidate who carries the popular vote.

“I like it, because I’d like to have a longer nomination process,” explains Morton Blackwell, a member of the Republican National Committee from Virginia. “Yes, it could very well extend the period when it isn’t clear who our nominee will be.”

Curly Haugland, an RNC committeeman from North Dakota who sits on the rules committee, takes that one step further. “I’ve been spending a lot of time on this,” says Haugland, “and it seems like there’s no possibility for anything but a contested convention.” That’s fine with him. “The media and pollsters want this to be decided in primaries? Well, who gives a rip who wins New Hampshire? There’s a bunch of left-leaning lunatics up there.”

Thus the scenario—floated every four years—in which the race drags on, no one locks up the nomination, and the convention doesn’t pick a candidate on the first ballot. This is the first GOP presidential primary of the Tea Party era, with state parties that have been taken over by the sort of people who decapitated Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, and (less successfully) Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It’s the first post-Citizens United primary, which makes it theoretically possible for candidates to be bailed out by Super PACs funded by the sort of people who really started sweating when President Obama went after private jets.

Officially at least, only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are permitted to have primaries in February—and that’s the earliest the party wants them to start. Any other state that goes earlier (and a few are floating the possibility) gets its delegation to the convention cut in half. No state that holds a primary in March is allowed to make it winner-take-all. After April 1, there are no such restrictions—California, New York, and Pennsylvania can go winner-take-all if they want to. But if the current schedule doesn’t change much, only about half of the delegates will be assigned before April 1. And that, potentially, is the set-up for a long, agonizing primary.

Just how agonizing? Republicans are confident that it won’t be as bad as Obama-Clinton. The main reason: Their version of balanced, non-winner-take-all primaries isn’t as bend-over-backward fair as the Democrats’ version. Even in the scenario in which Romney, Perry, and Bachmann take chunks out of one anothers’ hides for a couple months, there’ll be more decisive results than the ones Obama and Clinton got.

The reason for that, explains election-watching academic Josh Putnam, is that the GOP’s “balanced” primaries aren’t really balanced. In next year’s primaries in Michigan, Virginia, and other states tweaking their systems, some delegates will be assigned, proportionately, to the biggest vote-getters in those states. But most will be assigned on a winner-take-all basis, congressional-district-by-congressional district. In 2008, the states that used this system allowed John McCain to lock down his nomination with slim wins. In California, he only beat Mitt Romney by seven points, 42 percent to 35 percent. He won the state’s delegates in a landslide, 155-15.

Does that mean that the GOP primary’s messiness won’t matter, and that one of the frontrunners will win in a hurry anyway? Well, it depends what the word “win” means. Go back to that new X-factor of state Republican parties that have been taken over by Tea Party and Ron Paul activists. If the race is still inconclusive in late spring, what’s to stop these activists from crashing the state conventions and sending a bunch of Bachmann or Paul delegates to Tampa, instead of Romney delegates? Technically, nothing is stopping them.

“The reality is that the primaries and causes that the media covers in the early months are just the first steps,” explains John Yob. He was the McCain campaign’s political director in 2008. “After the initial contests, there are contests where the actual delegates are elected. Those delegates aren’t necessarily bound to vote the way the primary electorate voted. I’ll give you an example: In 2008, the McCain campaign sent teams to roughly 35 state conventions across the country in order to make sure McCain delegates were elected. This was after the media had coronated him as the nominee.”

What would one of the GOP’s nightmare scenarios look like? The simplest one starts with a Bachmann win in Iowa, followed (possibly, if the state sticks with a current plan) by a win in her own state’s caucuses the next day. It continues with an indecisive Missouri primary, with the state punished for moving the date up. It goes on to a Mitt Romney win in New Hampshire and a too-close-for-comfort Romney-Bachmann-Perry-Paul split in the Nevada caucuses the following Saturday. Perry wins South Carolina. Romney wins Michigan. There are no surprises as we head into March. (There’s no use guessing what happens in Florida yet, but if the other primaries are split, it may not be decisive.)

On March 6, Super Tuesday, Romney wins the his home state and neighboring Vermont, while Perry wins his home state and neighboring Oklahoma. At this point, Perry has more delegates than Romney, but Bachmann’s not out of the race yet, and neither is Paul. Paul does well in the Hawaii caucuses, Perry wins the Mississippi primary, and March ends with a slugfest in Illinois and another winnable Perry primary in Louisiana.

After that, we’re mostly done with the South, and we’re done with non-winner-take-all primaries. The race moves back to the Midwest, West, and East Coast. If Perry’s rivals are still in the hunt, and Super PACs are still playing, then there’s no obvious Republican front-runner. And that would give Republican activists more than enough motive to start showing up at state conventions and steering them to the candidates they like.

Republicans can avoid the drawn-out mess. By Oct. 1, 2011, states have to give their final delegate selection rules to the RNC, with whatever don’t-screw-with-delegates rules they can dream up. And it’s entirely possible that someone will break out of the pack and be a clear frontrunner and consensus choice before the first vote is cast in Iowa next February. In which case the hopes—and fears—of a brokered convention will have to wait until 2016.