With former Senator Fred Thompson's entry into the presidential race, the Republicans now have at least three candidates who could have the money and votes to compete, if necessary, all the way to June 2008. And they might have to do so. Indeed, when the Republicans meet in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September 2008 to choose their nominee, they might be looking at a brokered convention.
Of course, the party has had multiple strong candidates before--in 1980, for instance, and 1988 and even in 2000. But the old schedule of primaries and caucuses was designed to winnow down the field. By March, the field was invariably reduced to two candidates, one of whom would eventually gain enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses to win the nomination. But the 2008 schedule concentrates two-thirds of the primary and caucus votes in the first month, which ends February 5. If there is no clear frontrunner by then, the primary and caucus race will probably go down to June, and perhaps to the convention.
According to current estimates, Republicans will choose 2,517 delegates to the September convention. By the time polls close on February 5, 1,327 of 2,517 delegates will have been selected from states that include not only old standbys Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but also megastates California, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois. Some of these states (for instance, Arizona, Missouri, and Utah) will chose delegates by winner-take-all systems. Others including California (which changed its rules) and Georgia will either select their delegates proportionately or by which candidate wins congressional districts.
In addition, Republican delegate allocation rules grant additional delegates to states that voted for the Republican presidential nominee in the last election, have elected Republican senators, representatives, and governors, or have Republican state legislatures. That system benefits Southern and prairie states at the expense of large "blue" states in the Northeast, Midwest and Far West. New Hampshire, for instance, which went "blue" in 2006, will send eight fewer delegates to the 2008 convention than it sent to the 2004 convention.
I tried to estimate how the leading candidates would do in the 24 states that are scheduled to hold primaries or caucuses through February 5. I used polling in the states. If I couldn't find polls from late August or early September, I gave Thompson, who has risen recently in national polling and should maintain his standing, a boost in the polls. I also assumed that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would get at least a slight boost from winning the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. When I couldn't decide who would win a winner take-all primary, I allocated the delegates equally between the two leading candidates. Where polls didn't exist, or were too old to be trustworthy, I made assumptions about the regional strength of the candidates. Romney can be expected to do well in New England and the Mormon West; Thompson in the South; and Giuliani in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states.
I came up with the following totals for the three candidates through February 5: Giuliani in the lead with 459 delegates, followed by Thompson with 380, Romney with 300, Senator John McCain with 131, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee with 33. I wouldn't put any stock in these individual estimates, but I think that it is unlikely that any of the three candidates will have amassed a significantly larger lead than the one I estimate for Giuliani. What, then, are the frontrunner's chances of winning the nomination by June when the primaries and caucuses end?
To convert his advantage into the nomination, Giuliani, the frontrunner, would have to win 800 of the remaining 1,190 delegates, which comes to two-thirds. Unless one of his main rivals drops out after February 5, that would be very difficult to do. Many of Giuliani's best states like New York and New Jersey came in the first round of primaries and caucuses. Of the remaining large states, only Pennsylvania would seem to give the former New York mayor a clear edge. The New England states, including Massachusetts, should go to Romney; and the Southern states, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia, should favor Thompson. None of the candidates currently has an advantage in Texas. So there is a very good chance that none of the Republican candidates will have secured the nomination.
A strong party chairman, the White House, or Congressional leadership could try to force candidates to drop out in favor of the frontrunner. But with Karl Rove back in Texas and his own presidency in the doldrums, George W. Bush doesn't have that kind of clout. Republican National Committee chairman Mel Martinez is a lightweight in party circles. And the GOP in both the House and Senate is in disarray. Moreover, Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson are all former officials who have no bonds to the current leadership in Washington.
If the three candidates remain standing after June, the struggle for the nomination would probably move to the party-rules committee. The Republican Party has already threatened to disqualify some or all of the delegates of states that hold primaries before February 5. If it does that to Florida, for instance, that could affect the delegate counts.
If none of the candidates can secure a sufficient edge by altering the party's rules, then the battle will move to the convention itself, where the candidates will have to convince delegates to change their votes. That can make for very exciting television, but could pose difficulties for a party that wants to use its convention to showcase its nominee. A protracted nomination battle could also sow discord within the party itself and squander funds that the candidates might want to use later.
Of course, the Democrats could face a similar problem in 2008. But Hillary Clinton appears to be putting her competition behind her. And in the Democratic primary, the compressed schedule will have the opposite effect: making it difficult, if not impossible, for a longshot candidate like John Edwards to pick up sufficient impetus from the Iowa caucus to carry him through the megastate primaries to come. Clinton's most formidable challenger, Senator Barack Obama, for all his celebrity, is still a junior senator who will be subject to pressure from his home-state Democrats and from colleagues in Washington if he doesn't look sufficiently competitive after February 5. It's the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are looking at a political nightmare in 2008.