By Tory Newmyer
August 15, 2015

Saturday Morning Post: The Weekly View from Washington

If the hunt for the Republican presidential nod has demonstrated anything so far, it’s that attempts to predict what’s going to happen, even from day to day, aren’t worth very much. So with all due humility, let’s consider the possibility that the surprises keep unfurling, all the way through the end of the process — 11 months from now. The GOP hasn’t seen a nominating battle settled at its convention since 1976, when Gerald Ford narrowly beat back an insurgent challenge from Ronald Reagan in Kansas City. A repeat next year remains remote. Yet it is not out of the question, and top campaigns are bracing for a scenario that sees the fight tumbling into the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland next July.

The series of events leading to a brokered convention actually isn’t all that tough to imagine. In recent times, only those candidates who place in the earliest contests earn tickets into the later rounds, where resources swiftly dry up for those unlikely to go the distance. This cycle, the proliferation of super PACs means that a single committed sponsor or two can spell a gadfly contender deep into the calendar. That, combined with an ahistorically sprawling field, sets up what could be a marathon slog for delegates that forecloses a quick and bloodless conclusion.

Some of this is simple math. The first four contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — all in February — together will award only 133 delegates, out of a total 2,470 up for grabs over the length of the race. Over the first two weeks of March, however, survivors will have to dash through 25 more events awarding a combined 1,052 delegates. The size of the media markets in play in this period (including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, and Seattle) would seem to favor the best-funded contenders. But while each of those contests has its own rules for distributing its spoils, they have this in common: Delegates will be awarded, in some fashion, proportionally. In other words, the top vote-getter in any given state or territory won’t come away with all of its delegates. Assuming four — or five or six or more — candidates can remain standing through this phase, they could well slice up the winnings sufficiently to deny an otherwise-favored frontrunner a clear path to a delegate majority. And that could supply those candidates’ respective billionaire backers all the evidence they need to continue cutting checks into the summer.

The chaos of a contested convention amounts to a political reporter’s dream. But at least some within the party itself are arguing its virtues. Ed Martin, a former chairman of the Missouri GOP and president of the conservative Eagle Forum, is urging all Republican contenders to “go the distance,” and remain in the race if they win any delegates at all in order to guarantee the fight is settled in Cleveland. “The usual suspects and the usual paths won’t work,” he says. And so far this race is hardly usual.

Tory Newmyer
@torynewmyer
tory_newmyer@fortune.com

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