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How an open convention could reinvigorate Republicans.
No, no, no. The Republican presidential nomination really is not over despite the parade of rather craven endorsements now flowing Mitt Romney’s way.
Before I go any further, a few words of explanation. Please bear with me. Part One of this column will explain why I am writing this right now. Part Two, the meat of it, will explain the actual delegate arithmetic in play, while also providing part of a tutorial on caucus/convention systems. Part Three will “game out” the remaining contests. Part Four will explain why a contested convention could be very much to the benefit of the Republican Party and its presidential candidate.
It must first be acknowledged that I am not at all an objective observer. In this race, I have become an outspoken Rick Santorum partisan — so much so that I wrote a month ago that, with a few stated exceptions, I would no longer columnize (to coin a word) on this race. Indeed, I have refrained from commentary on the overall, relative merits of the candidates. But now I will make a slight exception — not as candidate advocacy, although I will be accused of it, but in the realm of explanatory journalism. As I do so, please bear my biases in mind, and judge accordingly.
I make this exception because, before I went full-time into journalism, I worked on lots of campaigns and particularly took pride in my work in caucuses and conventions, where I helped achieve some significant triumphs, at least for the scale of event involved. (One case in point, relevant to my coming argument, was when the number of David Duke supporters who showed up at one particular legislative district caucus was greater than the combined supporters for two other candidates and for an “uncommitted” slate — but, by using smart tactics and good discipline, the non-Duke bloc, thank goodness, secured four of that small district’s five delegate slots to the state convention. This helps make an important point we shall see later, which is how pluralities or even intelligent minorities of voters can secure majorities of delegates from a caucus.)
It therefore galls me to see media accounts, and delegate counts, that misrepresent the possible or likely results of district and state confabs, which in truth can produce outcomes remarkably different from primaries. Because much of the “race is over” narrative relies on these potentially mistaken delegate counts — and because about half of all the nation’s Republican voters still haven’t had a chance to weigh in on this contest, and will effectively be disenfranchised if the battle is concluded prematurely — it is extremely important for both pundits and voters to understand where the narrative may be flawed.
The Santorum campaign has asserted that the delegate race is notably closer than the punditocracy has indicated. Their contentions largely have been dismissed by that same punditocracy, with some analysts describing the Santorum claims as inhabiting “fantasyland.”
Here’s why the truth is probably somewhere in between.
To understand why, one must understand that the differing assertions almost all involve caucus/convention states, and must understand that those states tend not to award delegates proportionally. Instead, they encourage results that approach “winner-take-all” decisiveness.
As a hypothetical, imagine a district caucus in which only two candidates are competing to choose, perhaps, five delegates to a state convention. Now imagine that 199 voters participate in the caucus. Imagine that exactly 100 of those 199 are firmly committed to one of the two candidates. If those 100 are disciplined, and can agree among themselves to let no more than five of their number run for the delegate spots, then they will win all five of those delegate spots regardless of what the opponents do. Why? Because all five of Candidate A’s delegate designees would receive exactly 100 votes, while none of Candidate B’s delegate designees could receive more than 99 votes. An almost perfectly evenly split caucus (100-99) would therefore produce a unanimous delegation to the state convention.
The same dynamic would apply at the state convention. If one candidate enjoys bare-majority support at the state convention (after all the delegations from each of the district caucuses were assembled), that candidate could use a disciplined organization to sweep every single one of the delegate spots for the national convention. The media may report caucus results statewide as being almost exactly 50-50, and its delegate estimates would therefore assume an almost even split — but those estimates would be horribly wrong.
Granted, caucuses and conventions rarely work out in quite so clear-cut a fashion. Presidential campaigns rarely can be so certain of the candidate preferences of caucus voters or convention delegates. And, of course, if those delegates are not bound by law to stick with their originally stated preference, they can always change their minds. Nonetheless, the principle still applies: Conventions can magnify small advantages.
(Also, of course, if the 100 for Candidate A are not disciplined, but the 99 for Candidate B know what they are doing, then the 99 can actually outvote the 100. How? Because in a caucus, people vote directly for delegates, not for a candidate. If some of the 100 vote for delegates not pledged to their candidate of choice, then those votes are accordingly diluted. This actually can happen quite easily, if, for instance, some well-respected potential delegates earn votes from some of the 100 erstwhile supporters who are confused by the system and vote for delegates based on the delegates’ perceived merits rather than based on the candidate to whom those delegates may be committed.)
In a slightly different way, the same principle applicable to bare majorities applies to bare pluralities, too, when more than two candidates are competing. Even more importantly, coalitions between candidates can overcome a plurality enjoyed by a third.
Again, a hypothetical: Imagine a state where Romney secured 40 percent of delegates to the state convention, while Santorum secured 30 percent, Newt Gingrich 22 percent, and Ron Paul eight percent. If the Santorum team and the Gingrich team joined forces, either because of philosophical affinity or even just for the tactical goal of slowing down Romney’s march, they would together be in the same position as Candidate A’s majority described in the first example. They could agree to divvy up the national-convention delegates among their respective camps, with, say, two-thirds of the delegates going to Santorum and one-third going to Gingrich. Even with a plurality of state-convention delegates, Romney would enjoy the allegiance of not a single one of that state’s delegates to the national convention in Tampa, because not a single one of his delegates would win a majority.
This is, by the way, what the McCain camp, masterminded on site by former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, did with the Huckabee camp at the 2008 West Virginia convention, thus blocking Romney from what would have been a key win in his challenge to McCain.