Let’s be honest – there was no winner of the Iowa Republican Caucus. Now that we’ve moved beyond polling to cast actual votes, we can see that the race is impossibly deadlocked and unlikely to clear.
Barring some extraordinary collapse we can be very confident that no candidate will pick up a clear majority of the delegates to the Republican convention. Thanks to some brilliant rule changes there are very few true winner-take-all primaries ahead. The math is relentless.
That would all change if lots of these also-ran candidates (like, you know, Jeb Bush) dropped out. But there’s good reason for them to stick around. Those reasons relate to the structure of the convention.
With no one securing the nomination via delegate math early in the primary season you start looking to the convention to select the nominee. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a fight on the convention floor. In theory it should be possible for someone to make a deal prior to the event. However, a number of factors make a convention fight more likely.
This is not 1976. The major contestants have no interest in preserving the dignity, authority, or even the survival of the Republican Party. Cruz or Trump would be entirely content to blow up the GOP to achieve their personal goals. By the time we get to April, the prospect of Cruz, Trump and Rubio working together toward a sane outcome seems beyond unlikely, bordering on ludicrous. This gets to the reason why the also-rans might stay in the race.
A vast majority of convention delegates will be “soft-pledged” to a candidate based on primary or caucus results. That means they are only obliged to vote with that candidate on a first ballot. When no one secures a majority on the first ballot, they are free agents.
So, how does the convention resolve a deadlock? Go back and watch the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones.
Once the majority of delegates are turned loose from their nominal obligations, their only remaining loyalty is to the party. Remember, all across the country people securing seats at the convention, regardless of who wins a primary, are generally long-time party volunteers, local elected officials, and other folks with significant ties to the organization.
This is where those neglected candidates like Bush, Christie and Kasich might get a chance to play, especially if they were able to get a few delegates seated. If we scrapped the whole primary process and let Republican donors, lobbyists, officeholders and party officials select the nominee, who would they pick? The answer to that question becomes the nominee (and VP) in a contested convention.
If Trump fails to win a solid majority of committed delegates there is absolutely no way he can become the nominee. And accumulating such a delegate lead seems mathematically impossible.
Cruz faces similar headwinds, but he is likely to have much better quality delegate support than Trump (see explanation here). The party might tolerate him to stave off a revolt from the right, while chaining him to a relatively moderate VP like Kasich or Christie. This seems like the most likely outcome at this point.
There remains a significant possibility that the party exercises its own revolt at the convention; a revenge of the establishment. This ‘Red Wedding’ scenario could see the party purge the insurgents entirely, putting someone like Rubio at the top of the ticket and giving the far right the finger. There is only one reason to do this – because Bernie Sanders is winning the Democratic nomination.
If Clinton is sailing away with the Democratic nomination, the Republicans have no reason to risk the damage of a purge. No Republican is going to beat Clinton and Republican insiders generally understand this. If Clinton is the nominee then they have every reason to let Cruz (but not Trump) take the nomination and lose in a landslide.
A Sanders nomination changes the logic. That race becomes not only winnable, but a near-lock for any Republican who isn’t a raving idiot. Republican insiders will be willing to alienate Cruz’s supporters, daring them to sit out the race and elect a socialist. Sanders is just what Republicans need to restore a little pragmatism to their electorate.
At the end of the day, those who are most invested in the party will choose its nominee. Unless someone streaks ahead, we probably face a contingent outcome. If the Democrats nominate Clinton, the Republicans will probably let Cruz have the nomination at the convention. If it looks like Democrats are going to open the door for a Republican to win the White House by nominating Sanders, then look out. The scene on the convention floor in Cleveland will be bloody. Probably the walls, too. Viewer discretion is advised.