What if the Republicans can’t pick a winner?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

In order to win the Republican nomination for president, one candidate must amass 1,144 delegates. What if no one does that?

That’s a possibility – not a probability, but a possibility – with 17 candidates splitting the vote. If that were to happen, the nominee would be chosen at the Republican National Convention in July. Instead of a boring speech-a-thon in Cleveland, such a “brokered convention” would be marked by candidates courting delegates and making deals.

Pundits bring up this possibility every election cycle, and every election cycle it doesn’t happen. The 2016 elections, however, could be different because of the number of viable candidates, their geographic distribution, and the resources available to them. The 17 candidates hail from 14 states, where many have strong political organizations. Meanwhile, because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision removing many donor limits, candidates can stay in the race longer than in the past because they need only a few big contributors to pay the bills.

So here’s a possible scenario. Donald Trump or Dr. Ben Carson wins Iowa Feb. 1. Then Trump or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Ohio Gov. John Kasich wins New Hampshire Feb. 9. Then on Feb. 20 comes South Carolina, home state of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s currently polling at only 5 percent there – far behind Trump, who has a big lead over everyone.

Then comes Nevada Feb. 23 and then the big one, March 1, when delegates are selected in about a dozen states, including Arkansas as part of a bloc of Southern states known as the “SEC primary.” Sen. Ted Cruz could be the big winner that day if he wins his home state of Texas and does well elsewhere in the South, while Gov. Mike Huckabee should win Arkansas. Four days later, Sen. Rand Paul could win his home state of Kentucky while struggling Gov. Bobby Jindal will try to turn things around and win his home state of Louisiana.

By that point, there’s usually a mass exodus from the race, leaving a clear front-runner with some diehard challengers. But candidates who have won a state will be able to tell their supporters (and themselves) that they can still win, so many may still be running.

Moreover, the campaign calendar and the party’s rules could give some candidates a reason to continue. Before March 15, most of the states will have awarded their delegates on a proportional basis. In other words, a candidate who wins 50 percent of the vote wins half the state’s delegates. Starting March 15, states can award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which is a big advantage for three candidates from big states whose elections occur that day: Ohio’s Kasich, and Florida’s Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. If Bush loses Florida, he’s out.

By the end of that day, more than half the states will have had their primaries and caucuses. It’s conceivable that so many candidates will have won delegates that no one will have a big lead. From that point, it could be a long three months before June 7, when primaries are held in California, home state of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and New Jersey, home of Gov. Chris Christie.

If 2016 is like previous elections, the race will be over before then. Someone will be on the way to a coronation, and the challengers will have dutifully given their endorsements.

Could that be Trump? Sure. Currently, he maintains a large lead that seems to get bigger whenever he says something controversial. Big poll numbers nationwide don’t necessarily translate to winning one state at a time – but he’s winning now.

I’ve always expected that Republican leaders eventually would pressure lesser candidates to leave the race so the party could coalesce behind an “anybody but Trump” alternative. But a recent poll by SurveyUSA found him beating not only Hillary Clinton but also other Democrats. At some point, Republican voters must seriously ask themselves if he’s really their best choice. But for now, he’s looking more and more legitimate, so instead of trying to stop him, the party may have to ride this wave wherever it goes.

Which could be all the way to a brokered convention in Cleveland. If that’s the case, there would be a lot of back room politics and dealmaking. And which of the candidates is the best at making deals? Trump, supposedly.

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