After Super Tuesday: A Brokered GOP Convention?

by Susan J. Aluise | February 29, 2012 12:22 pm

[1]With the Michigan and Arizona primaries[2] 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:


Massachusetts. (Primary, 41 delegates). Romney’s “Favorite Son” status as the commonwealth’s former governor should provide a firewall he couldn’t count on in Michigan. A Suffolk University poll[3] on Feb. 15 found Romney in command with 64%. Santorum was a distant second with 16%, followed by Paul at 7% and Gingrich at 6%. Edge: Romney

Vermont. (Primary, 17 delegates). A new Castleton Polling Institute survey[4] found Romney leading Santorum 34% to 27% in the state, with Paul at 14% and Gingrich at 10%. Santorum’s support in Vermont also is softer than Romney’s, increasing the likelihood that more of his supporters will change their minds in the next few days. Edge: Romney.


Virginia. (Primary, 49 delegates). Virginia is an oddity this year because only Romney and Paul will be on the ballot, and state election laws prohibit write-in candidates. Santorum, Gingrich and other candidates who have since dropped out failed to submit enough signatures to qualify. A Feb. 20 Richmond Times-Dispatch poll[5] found Romney leading Paul 53% to 23%. The same poll found 57% of Virginia Republicans were dismayed at the lack of candidate choices. While Gingrich and others are trying to whip up voters to reject Romney by casting a vote for Paul, little is likely to come of the strategy. Edge: Romney


Ohio. (Primary, 66 delegates). In this week’s Quinnipiac University poll[6], Santorum leads Romney in Ohio by 36% to 29%, with 17% for Gingrich and 11% for Paul. But at this point, voter support is very soft, and as many as half of the likely primary voters say they could change their minds in the next week. Still, Santorum’s conservative message resonates in this battleground state. Edge: Santorum

Upper Midwest

North Dakota (Caucus, 28 delegates). In the world of presidential politics, caucuses are odd ducks: Delegates are usually not bound to the winning candidates, and obscure rules abound. No recent polling is available, but Santorum and Paul have both visited the state. Romney beat Arizona Sen. John McCain in the state’s 2008 caucuses 36% to 23%. Edge: Tossup


Georgia. (Primary, 76 delegates). Gingrich leads the field in Georgia at 39%, with Santorum and Romney neck-and-neck at 24% and 23% respectively, according to last week’s SurveyUSA tracking poll[7]. Paul is in fourth place with 9%. Gingrich has a clear edge in the state he represented for two decades in the House of Representatives, but he’s still campaigning like he’s the underdog. Edge: Gingrich.

Oklahoma. (Primary, 43 delegates). Santorum leads Gingrich 43% to 22% in the most recent Rasmussen poll[8], with Romney at 18% and Paul bringing up the rear at 4%. Santorum will be counting on the state’s social conservatives to give him the win next Tuesday. Edge: Santorum.

Tennessee. (Primary, 58 delegates). Tennessee’s delegate selection rules are just odd enough to be a menace. Santorum is leading Romney 38% to 20% in the recent Vanderbilt University poll[9]. Paul and Gingrich are at 15% and 13%, respectively. But 44 of the delegates are allocated proportionally to the top three candidates, the remaining 14 are chosen by state GOP leaders. And none of the delegates on the ballot is committed to Santorum, meaning they could turn on him in Tampa. That’s why a loss for Romney here may not hurt his delegate count that much. Edge: Santorum.


Idaho. (Caucus, 32 delegates). Idaho Republicans will vote in a caucus for the first time in 40 years because the state party just changed its procedures. But Republicans reportedly are confused by the new caucus rules[10]. Romney is getting a lot of help in the state, where governor “Butch” Otter and Sen. James Risch are stumping for him. Edge: Romney

Alaska. (Caucus, 27 delegates.) Polling hasn’t yet begun in the state. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has endorsed Romney, and he won the 2008 contest with nearly 36% of the vote. Still, in the candidates’ debate in Arizona, Romney bashed Santorum’s vote for the “Bridge to Nowhere” that connected a tiny island to the Alaska town of Ketchikan — and brought “pork barrel” bucks to the state. Edge: Tossup

Wyoming. (Caucus, 29 delegates.) Voting for almost half of the delegates begins March 6 and continues through March 10. The remaining delegates are elected at the state’s Republican Convention in mid-April.) Early straw polls in some counties have put Romney in the lead, but it’s too early to call. Edge: Tossup

Bottom Line: Exit polling in Michigan and Arizona Tuesday continued to reveal a disturbing trend: GOP voters were longing for the choice of a candidate not currently on the ballot. If the campaign does come end with a brokered convention, other names could come into play, most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of President George W. Bush. Although the younger Bush said last year that he wasn’t interested in a run for the presidency in 2012, all bets are off if the nomination isn’t locked up before the convention.

–Susan J. Aluise is a former White House correspondent who has covered several presidential campaigns.

The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.

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  1. [Image]:
  2. Michigan and Arizona primaries:
  3. Suffolk University poll:
  4. Castleton Polling Institute survey:
  5. Richmond Times-Dispatch poll:
  6. Quinnipiac University poll:
  7. SurveyUSA tracking poll:
  8. Rasmussen poll:
  9. Vanderbilt University poll:
  10. confused by the new caucus rules:

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