Let's face it, we're headed for a brokered GOP convention

Every profession has its pinnacle. If you’re a football player, it’s getting to play in the Super Bowl. If you’re a lawyer, it’s getting to argue before the Supreme Court. If you’re a political blogger, it’s getting to cover a 35-car pile-up of a convention where every faction of the party is at each other’s throats and then, like a phoenix from the ashes, the new and improved all-natural Romneybot 3.0 rises to graciously receive the nomination by acclamation when no one can agree on anyone else.

Romney/Palin. That’s my ticket. One-word slogan: “Unity.”

Sean Trende peers out into deep political space and sees the supernova just beginning to burst. My God, it’s full of page views.

I think the Republican Party really could wind up with a brokered convention – that is, a race where no candidate receives a majority of the delegates by the end of voting. In fact, it might well be the most likely outcome, if only because no particular outcome is particularly probable…

[There’s] a perfectly plausible scenario where we exit the early primary phase of the contest with four winners, each of whom is a legitimate presidential contender. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear how they knock each other out. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all represent different wings of the party, would draw from different fundraising bases, and would have different demographic appeals. Just as important: None is an obvious choice, but at the same time, unlike 2012, all will have a group of supporters that really likes them; it won’t just be an “anti-Bush” vote trying to coalesce. You can mix up the various winners (Rubio, Christie, Perry, Paul), but the same analysis holds.

Plus, we have states like New York, Utah and North Carolina that have moved up their primaries. We don’t have a good feel for these states, but you could take any one of the above scenarios, add Chris Christie in New York, Mitt Romney in Utah and any number of candidates in North Carolina. Moreover, a strong second-place finisher could decide that he is the next Bill Clinton (who famously won only one of the first 11 primaries in 1992), and try to keep going.

At that point, it really is anybody’s game. No one really has an incentive to drop out, as the RNC’s compressed schedule means the finish line is in sight by the time Super Tuesday rolls around, and all of these candidates can probably win a race here and there to keep the old ball rolling. Money might get tight, but the threshold for winning these contests remains low. It also becomes very difficult for any one candidate to amass a majority of the delegates very, very quickly.

It’s not just that the field is unusually strong (although it is), says Trende, or that the primary schedule and the proliferation of Super PACs can keep even lesser candidates going deep into the race. It’s that each individual state race is all but impossible to predict. Could Mike Huckabee pull 25 percent in Iowa and win the caucuses? Sure. Could he pull eight percent and finish behind younger social conservative rising stars like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker? Most definitely. Rand Paul could win Iowa with help from Ron’s base — or he could struggle with mainstream conservative voters and see his libertarian support erode because he’s not as pure as his dad. Chris Christie could be a total humiliating nonfactor or he could shock the field by winning over the centrists who voted for Romney in Iowa in 2012. And so on and so forth for everyone else, in New Hampshire and South Carolina too. Trende thinks it’s possible that Iowa could be won with as little as 12 percent of the vote next year, so divided will caucusgoers be among so many different candidates. And if that trend continues through the early states — different winners in each, all with unusually small shares of the vote — then it’s easy for each candidate to dismiss his losses as narrow and fluke-y and therefore to press on towards the convention. And as that happens, with a bunch of candidates carving up the delegate pools in each state, it becomes hard to see how anyone gets to a clear majority and clinches the nomination before Cleveland.

A couple of thoughts about this. One: At some point fairly early on, strategic considerations will start to affect the voting. They might matter less than they did in 2012, when the whole race was basically a “Romney or Not Romney?” referendum, but as the field is winnowed, they’ll inevitably matter. If Paul finishes first or second in Iowa and New Hampshire and Cruz finishes, say, fourth or fifth, South Carolinians who want a tea party candidate as nominee and prefer Cruz will have to think hard. Are they better off voting for him and hoping that he wins the state, which will thrust him back into the top tier of a chaotic race where his eventual victory is uncertain and even unlikely? Or are they better off voting for Rand, the more successful candidate, knowing that the longer Cruz and Paul split the right between them, the more it gives RINOs like Jeb Bush a chance to consolidate the center and pile up delegates? The center-right will have the same calculus. If Jeb Bush is running a bit ahead of Scott Walker and meanwhile Rand Paul looks poised to win South Carolina, will Walker fans start splitting off between Bush and Paul on “Anyone But Rand” and “Anyone But Jeb” grounds? If so, that should narrow the field down to two likely nominees by the time, say, Florida is done voting. That doesn’t undercut Trende’s point — those two likely nominees might still each fall short of a majority of delegates, requiring a brokered convention — but it does mean that the convention won’t be a free for all among four or five contenders. It’ll be a choice between two guys. Controlled chaos! Not total chaos.

Two: Related to the above, as the two likely nominees put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, the candidates themselves might start to think strategically. Imagine next spring that Bush has 35 percent of the delegates, Rand Paul has 25 percent, Walker has 20 percent, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have 10 percent apiece. Cruz looks at the remaining primary schedule and realizes that not only is there no way he’s coming back to win 51 percent and clinch the nomination, there’s no way realistically that he’ll end up among the top two finishers by the time the primaries are over. What’s his move at that point? Keep trudging along towards the convention, suffering the ongoing indignity of finishing behind a bunch of other candidates in most states? By staying in the race, he’ll be hurting Paul and Walker by drawing some right-wing votes that might otherwise have gone to them, which means he’ll inadvertently be protecting Jeb Bush’s advantage. Or does he decide at that point to drop out and throw his support to one of his rivals in hopes of boosting that guy to the nomination, an act of charity for which he’ll be rewarded later? Same deal for Rubio: Imagine how grateful Jeb would be if, instead of battling on to Cleveland, Rubio quit mid-race and backed Bush. Unless something very unusual happens and the field remains evenly split three or four ways all the way to the convention, we’re probably going to end up with two guys who have amassed many more delegates than the rest and they’re going to comprise the GOP ticket. In which case, what’s the incentive for guys who know they’re going to finish out of the money to keep going?

The incentive, I guess, is that the more delegates an also-ran can pile up by staying in the race, the more of a powerbroker he’ll be at the convention. If Cruz quits mid-spring with 10 percent, he forfeits the chance to run hard in the later states, land at the convention with, say, 15 percent of the delegates, and then hope that the margin separating the top two guys is less than 15 percent so that he can help decide who the nominee is. I can see Rand Paul doing that: If he can’t be the nominee himself, he could extract concessions towards libertarianism from the nominee by pledging his delegates in return. I’m not sure Cruz, Rubio, or anyone else in the field has an agenda that’s so different from the likely nominee’s that he’d feel compelled to keep running just to make sure that agenda is represented at the convention. And again, to even reach that point, you’d need to be willing to keep running long after the point it became clear that most primary voters prefer other candidates to you. Few politicians are willing to absorb that ego blow. But even if I’m right and we’re destined to have a two-man brokered convention, say, between Bush and Walker, with Rand Paul the third-place guy who controls enough delegates to decide which of the two frontrunners wins — imagine how much fun that would be. What sort of concessions could Paul extract? Could he demand to be the VP nominee of whomever he chooses, knowing that supporters of whichever of the top two gets left off the ticket will be deeply annoyed and might stay home in protest? See what I mean about a page-view supernova?

Exit question: Would you rather have a brokered convention among strong candidates or a foregone conclusion of a process where the nominee is so weak she decides she’s better off refraining from running for as long as she can?