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After Super Tuesday: A Brokered GOP Convention?

The tightness of the March 6 primaries may leave no one in charge


With the Michigan and Arizona primaries now behind them, the GOP’s field of presidential aspirants sets its sights on the biggest prize to date in the 2012 race for the White House: Super Tuesday.

In the closest thing to a national primary this year, 11 states representing most of the nation’s geographic regions, will hold contests on March 6. (Washington state holds a nonbinding caucus for its 43 delegates on March 3.)

But while past Super Tuesdays have brought clarity to the nominating process, this year could yield chaos given the strong likelihood that the 466 delegates up for grabs will be divvied up among Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. That raises the specter of a spectacle that American politics hasn’t witnessed in 60 years — a brokered convention.

Brokered conventions arise when no candidate gains enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot — the only vote during which delegates must vote for the candidate who “won them” in the party’s primaries and caucuses. If no candidate has the 1,144 votes needed to secure the nomination at the GOP convention in late August in Tampa, all the delegates are “released” to vote for anyone.

History — and common sense — suggests that would be an unmitigated disaster for Republican hopes of recapturing the White House from President Barack Obama. Brokered conventions tend to end badly, producing nominees like Democrats John W. Davis in 1924 and Adlai Stevenson in 1952, or Republicans Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 — all of whom suffered electoral vote blowouts in November.

Republican Warren G. Harding, nominated on the 10th ballot in 1920, did score a landslide win over Ohio Gov. James Cox, but the Democrat himself was the product of a brokered convention, securing the nomination on the 44th ballot. The 1920 election had another anomaly: It was the first in which women were allowed to vote.

But that was then. In all likelihood, Republicans will find some way to minimize their differences in the interest of trying to win back the White House in November. Romney won the 29 delegates in Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary in Arizona. Michigan’s 30 delegates will be divided among the winners of each of the state’s 14 congressional districts, with the remaining two going to Romney as the statewide winner.

That’s why even though Romney bounced back from a deficit to eke out a tight win on Tuesday, Santorum made a good delegate showing, too. And in the all-important measure of momentum, Romney’s weaker-than-expected showing in the state where he was born and where his father served as governor, raises questions about the depth of his support among the Republican rank and file.

Not counting Michigan, Romney had 152 delegates, Santorum had 72, Gingrich had 32 and Paul had 19. Here’s how the Super Tuesday contests are looking so far:

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