Is the Republican Party headed for a brokered convention in 2016?
It is a possibility, given the plethora of candidates, the availability of huge wads of cash through ever-present super PACs (thank you, Supreme Court), and the uncertainty of the primary calendar. The Republican National Committee wants a quick primary process, with a candidate emerging early to avoid the blood-letting that marked Mitt Romney’s long slog to the nomination in 2012. Choosing a candidate early in the process would allow the nominee to prepare for the general election.
The crowded field — which does not have an odds-on favorite — promises to frustrate the wishes of party officials. As of now, there are eight announced candidates: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have not yet announced, but they are certainly running. Other Republicans have expressed an interest; a field of 15 to 20 candidates is possible.
Why such a large field? One obvious reason is the lack of a strong front-runner such as George W. Bush in 1999. Another reason is that for some potential candidates, losing is winning. Some of the losers are likely to cash in on the fame that comes with running for president, appearing in televised debates, and receiving press coverage. Mike Huckabee — with a TV show, radio show, speeches, and books —proved in 2008 how lucrative a losing presidential race can be.
Available money will keep several marginal candidates in the race, fanning hopes that if they just make it to the next primary, they might catch fire. Newt Gingrich in 2012 illustrates this point. He struggled early, finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Then casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson came to Gingrich’s rescue, donating $5 million to the former House speaker’s super PAC. The infusion of cash enabled Gingrich to win the South Carolina primary. That win and more money from Adelson and his wife kept Gingrich in the race long after his candidacy lost viability.
The same was true for Rick Santorum, the winner of the Iowa caucus last time around. Santorum’s candidacy received a boost in 2012 from wealthy donor Foster Friess, who promises to give money to the former senator from Pennsylvania this time. Friess declines to reveal how much he plans on donating. “That’s a private question,” he said. “Right now, I’m giving to Santorum, period.”
A well-funded super PAC allows marginal candidates to stay in the race. In the era before super PACs minor candidates dropped out early because they lagged in fundraising. But now, such candidates can hang around as long as their wealthy backers are willing to contribute money. With money, they can compete in selected primaries, winning one or two and preventing any candidate from emerging with a majority of delegates.
The uncertainty of the primary schedule also aids marginal candidates. As of now, the only certainties on the GOP schedule is that Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will be the first four states to vote. After that, the schedule is fluid. Southern Republicans are trying to arrange an all-Southern primary on March 1, which they dub the “SEC primary” in a nod to the NCAA’s Southeastern Athletic Conference. Six or seven Southern states have indicated they may hold their primaries on that date, offering an incentive for conservative candidates to compete for Southern delegates.
A crowded early primary schedule means that candidates can pick and choose where to campaign. It also means that there may never be a state where all — or even a substantial number — of the candidates are running hard at the same time. Such a scenario could prevent any one candidate from getting a majority of the delegates before the Cleveland convention.
A record number of candidates, limitless money flowing to many candidates, and several different winners in the early caucus and primary states adds up to a nomination battle lasting well into late spring or early summer. If no clear winner emerges by then, Republicans may be headed for their nightmare — a brokered convention in Philadelphia.
Hillary Clinton must be smiling.