About That Brokered Convention…

1964 democratic convention About That Brokered Convention... 

A round of brokered convention talk seems to have broken out, with pundits mulling the possibilities of a formless G.O.P. race – four candidates are bunched within six points of the lead in the newest national poll – in which a clear front-runner stubbornly refuses to emerge.

“I fear our intraparty fury will destroy all leaders and send us off to a brokered convention,” Tony Blankley wrote this week. And Adam Nagourney addressed the topic in the New York Times three days ago, outlining this no-clear-winner scenario:

In fact, it is entirely plausible that Mike Huckabee of Arkansas will win the caucuses (in Iowa); that John McCain of Arizona will win New Hampshire; that Mitt Romney of Massachusetts will win Michigan, Fred Thompson of Tennessee will win South Carolina and Rudolph Giuliani of New York will win Florida. In those circumstances, with no obvious front-runner, and with many of the candidates having adequate resources and varying bases of support, they could just divide the prize on Feb. 5 and move on to the next primary.

Here’s the problem with that scenario: It seems logical now, but it fails to account for the primacy of momentum in the winnowing process.

Remember how radically one win in Iowa changed John Kerry’s fortunes in ’04? In early January, he was written off. But then he won Iowa on January 19. Overnight, his numbers were revived. In New Hampshire, he erased a deep deficit in days, winning the state just eight days after Iowa. And from there, virtually every other state fell into place.

I realize the comparison of the ’04 Democratic contest to this year’s G.O.P. race is inexact. But if you look back at the primary/caucus era, you’ll find that even shapeless fields tend to come into focus quickly once the action begins.

For instance, Thompson may now seem viable in South Carolina. But what happens if he fares terribly (as in, under five percent) in Iowa and New Hampshire? And what if, as now seems likely, Huckabee scores a clear win in Iowa? Then Huckabee, who is already at or near the lead in South Carolina, would become the clear favorite there and would presumably pick up much of the support that had been leaning toward Thompson.

Likewise, if McCain can win New Hampshire, it would qualify as a considerable upset, given the expectations there for Romney. In many ways, McCain would recapture the excitement that accompanied his 2000 New Hampshire triumph, instantly elevating him to contender status in veteran-rich South Carolina – and probably erasing much of the casual support that Romney and Giuliani had in that state. Suddenly, South Carolina could be a clearly-defined two-man contest.

And Romney, if he were to lose both Iowa and New Hampshire (states he was expected to win for much of this year), could be dismissed as a dead man walking, making a victory in Michigan – or anywhere else – far-fetched indeed. Of course, it could work the other way if Romney were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire; then he might have enough momentum to prevail in South Carolina, and across the country on February 5.

The Republican race is fun to watch right now because so many candidates can paint plausible maps to victory. But the last national convention for either party to go to a second ballot was in 1956. That will almost certainly remain the case.