The betting odds are that Mitt Romney will win the Florida primary today — and, eventually, the GOP nomination. After all, we know it’s too late for a brand-new candidate to swoop in and win the Republican primaries. So is the pundit dream of a brokered convention finally dead?
1) The front-runner squeaks it out. One possibility is that Romney comes into the GOP convention in Tampa with a bare majority of delegates, but there’s a groundswell of support for another candidate (either Gingrich or an outsider). This is what happened to Gerald Ford in 1976. Ford had enough delegates to clinch, but Ronald Reagan was the popular choice at the convention — indeed, many of Ford’s own delegates preferred Reagan. So what happened? Under the rules, Ford’s delegates were required to vote for Ford in the first round of voting, and Ford clinched the nomination. A similar scenario could unfold here: Many of Romney’s delegates will, in all likelihood, be bound to vote for Romney on the first ballot, even if they’re privately dreaming of, say, Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush.
(And on the off-chance that Romney doesn’t clinch the nomination on the first ballot, that doesn’t mean that all the delegates would automatically be free to vote for whoever they wanted on the second vote. As political scientist Josh Putnam explains, the rules vary state by state, but many delegates would be bound to their candidates for at least two rounds.)
2) The “unbound” delegates play kingmaker. Another scenario, says Putnam, is that no candidate comes in with a majority, but it’s a close call. In that case, all eyes would focus on the “unbound” delegates — the delegates who can theoretically vote for whoever they wanted. There are 412 such delegates now, including a number of state party chairs, and Minnesota and Louisiana could still decide to “unbind” their 65 delegates at upcoming state conventions. Add it up, and that’s a potentially powerful swing bloc. “That’s about one-fifth of the delegates,” Putnam says, “and that could prove interesting at the convention if they acted as one bloc and tipped the balance in favor of another candidate.” But, Putnam cautions, there’s no guarantee that this bloc would actually vote as one. Which leads us to ...
3) Chaos! The final possibility is the chaos scenario, where no one comes into the convention with enough delegates, the unpledged delegates scatter in every direction, and there’s no consensus on who to support. Jonathan Bernstein outlines this scenario: “Really bad results for the party — a deadlock lasting weeks, the convention splitting in two with each nominating a different candidate and then fighting over ballot slots, all sorts of ugliness — would all be very possible. We’re also talking about 4000 obscure people ... who would suddenly be reality TV stars. You want to bet that none of them turn out to be deeply embarrassing to the party?”
In any case, all of these scenarios are fairly implausible. Right now, Gingrich’s camp is arguing that Romney is vulnerable because he can’t win Southern states. But, counters Putnam, unless Gingrich can show he could win outside the South, he’s unlikely to steal enough delegates away from Romney to deadlock the GOP convention. And it would be extremely difficult, logistically, for a new fantasy candidate to swoop in right now and gather up enough delegates to block Romney. Which means that the dream of a frenzied, chaotic, brokered convention might have to wait another four years.