Conventional Wisdom

Republicans are growing worried that they are headed to a “brokered convention” in Tampa. It’s unlikely—but there is still plenty to worry about.

With Mitt Romney still seen as a weak candidate, exactly how the Republican National Convention will go down remains uncertain

Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Disney may be in Orlando, but in Republican Party politics, Tampa is the home of Fantasyland. That’s where the GOP convention will be held the week of Aug. 27. As the Republican race appears more likely to stretch into spring (or beyond), journalists and political operatives have started to imagine make-believe scenarios for what might happen if GOP delegates show up with funny hats, pins, and suntan lotion but no confirmed nominee.

It is still early—there are still 48 contests to go—and a lot can happen on the campaign trail between now and August. But while we’re thinking of hot days in western Florida, one thing is certain: No matter who the nominee is, there is going to have to be a reconciliation between populist conservatives, evangelicals, and establishment Republicans. GOP leaders are going to have a tough time putting on their show for the watching world if they can’t finesse these differences. Here are the three most likely scenarios, in declining order of madness.

Pure Chaos: A Brokered Convention 

Usually it takes three martinis and a long night to get people to ruminate about a brokered convention, but it’s happening. Under this scenario, a white-knight candidate arrives either late in the nominating process or in Tampa. Of course, this person does not yet exist. Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie have all said they’re not interested. Oh sure, they could be convinced to enter the race, but that doesn’t change the logic that kept them from running in the first place. Whether it’s a lack of will, the wrong issue positions, or something else, whatever kept them out of the race in the first place is going to come out. And when it does, this hero candidate is going to have to dampen those doubts while also trying to build an organization, introduce himself to the press, and adjust his body clock to the intense physical and psychological challenges of the white-hot moment. 

None of these characters is so universally beloved that they won’t set a brush fire among certain constituencies. Brokered conventions were more common 60 years ago. When the party bosses decided what to do, the rank and file knew no different. Now there are no party bosses and the prevailing feeling in the Republican Party is that no one wants to have any elders tell them what to do. And the original slate of candidates, who will have slogged through almost every state, will not sit politely and applaud the new choice. The chaos would be beamed live across the land for four days to independent voters and swing states—hardly the image the GOP wants to project. 

Managed Chaos: A Contested Convention 

Under this scenario, none of the four candidates gets to Tampa with the 1,144 delegates they require to clinch the nomination. That means they would have to cut a deal that elevates one of them as the party’s candidate. This would probably be a late-breaking deal after emissaries from various camps snuck in and out of parking garages trying to avoid the press. The late hour would add to the degree of difficulty. Supporters would feel sold out. There would be lots of stories about how they’re not going to follow their candidate’s lead and support the nominee. All of this would be breaking at show time. To quell the crowds, the chosen man would have to give a stunning convention performance like John Kennedy in front of the Texas delegation in 1960 when he joked that Lyndon Johnson was so useful in the Senate he should stay there. There isn’t a Kennedy in the bunch.

Richard Nixon also did some of this party stitching in 1960. After working out a deal with the moderate Nelson Rockefeller, he spoke to conservatives in the platform committee in Chicago who accused him of selling out. “I have heard some people say ‘if I don’t get what I want I’m going to go home and sit it out,’ ” he said, “and my point is: how stupid can you be?” But Nixon was far more blunt with the Tea Party activists of his time than any politician would be today.

In 1976 Gerald Ford orchestrated a moment of excitement at his contested convention when he called Ronald Reagan to speak, surprising everyone. Still, Ford lost.

Planned Chaos: A Nominee Arrives in Tampa

The most likely scenario is that a nominee arrives in Tampa with the delegates he needs. But, in this election season, that won’t spare him trouble. It’s not just that bruised feelings will have to be managed between the winner and his vanquished rivals. He will also have to unite the party behind his candidacy. That’s been the challenge before, but perhaps never with such a weak field of potential nominees. The story of this campaign, in part, is that the best men did not run. The continued chatter about Daniels, Bush, and Christie confirms the weakness in those that did.

So the eventual nominee, whoever he is, will face some immediate challenges. How to manage the disappointment in the other camps? How to ensure that they leave Tampa united and ready to take on an incumbent president? For Mitt Romney, the problem will be exciting the delegates and the conservative pundits. It hasn’t been an easy prospect for other GOP nominees, even some who had a stronger hand to play. Think, for example, of the chaos that has been created by nominees striving to repair the breach by generating excitement in the party base. In 1992, George Bush’s convention planners let Pat Buchanan speak. His firebrand call for a cultural war defined the event—and the party—in a way that the Bush team never intended. In 1996 and 2008, the GOP nominees used their vice president picks to electrify the party base. But the undisciplined Jack Kemp—a fervent supply-sider—was never a good match for nominee Bob Dole, who had been a deficit hawk his whole career. John McCain excited the party’s base and convention-goers with his pick of Sarah Palin. Of course, the choice also led to chaos in his campaign. 

In 2004, the George W. Bush team used their convention to present a moderate rather than conservative face to the country. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Arnold Schwartzeneger all spoke in coveted prime-time spots. You could imagine the this year’s nominee wanting to do something similar, especially as some in the party fear that extremism in the primaries has pulled the GOP too far to the right. But is that option available to Mitt Romney? With a right flank suspicious of his conservative bona fides, he’ll be under far greater pressure to show support for movement conservatives. If he doesn’t give them pride of place, there will be grumbling.

There’s always grumbling. Hillary supporters grumbled about their candidate getting proper deference at Barack Obama’s convention. Sure, but Democrats were always going to rally around the first African-American nominee. Also, Romney-grumbling will be different: The grumbling will be of the same order that has dogged Romney throughout his campaign. Simply giving Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, or Sarah Palin 15 minutes in the spotlight is not going to make hard-core conservatives who already distrust Romney suddenly believe that he’s going to promote their values.

If Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich is the nominee, there will be a different challenge. Party regulars will be happy, but all of the Republican strategists who warn that nominating one of these two men would alienate independent voters—thereby sinking the party’s chances in the presidential race, as well as in House and Senate contests—will continue to talk to reporters like me. 

The Chaos Neutralizer: Barack Obama 

The good news for any Republican is that the great unifying figure will be the sitting president. The desire to replace Barack Obama will bring Tea Party supporters and establishment Republicans together around a common enemy. Of course, a deep disgust with the incumbent president wasn’t enough to oust the reviled Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Then again, if the economy stays soft, it might just be enough in 2012, even for a party as divided as the GOP.