Republicans: Headed for
an Open Convention?

FEB. 12, 2015 — A new poll provides us an early clue about how spoiler candidates could force the Republican nomination into an open convention.

TargetPoint Consulting (Jan. 30-Feb. 3; 400 SC Republican primary voters) finds Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leading the GOP pack of candidates in a preliminary poll, finishing one point ahead of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) in their new survey of South Carolina Republican primary voters. Both just barely top the double-digit mark (Walker 12 percent; Graham 11 percent), but still fare better than the other candidates including ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee (10 percent), who finished second in the 2008 South Carolina primary, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (9 percent).

Though the difference among the candidates is negligible, the fact that Bush cannot break away from single-digits is significant. A recent Iowa poll (Selzer & Company for the Des Moines Register) also projected Gov. Walker leading with Bush similarly mired in the middle of the pack. These poll results provide further evidence that the Republican nomination battle is wide open.

Sen. Graham has been publicly toying with the idea of entering the presidential race and promises a decision by the middle of this year. Aside from this poll of his home state electorate, he hasn’t even registered in surveys conducted in other states. Still, it is regional, or favorite-son candidates like he, who could play a major role in determining who ultimately does win the nomination.

If the fight goes all the way to the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled for mid-July 2016 in Cleveland, with no one securing a majority of the delegate votes when primary and caucus season ends, then regional candidates such as Graham, who control a small slate of delegates, become pivotal. For example, if others having regional or ideological bases, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, enter the race having the distinct purpose of accumulating delegates to become an open convention broker, then such individuals will become a significant force.

Under Republican National Committee rules, each state has a different number of pledged delegates, but virtually the same total of unpledged delegates. The vast majority, those elected or chosen from the congressional district allocation, are pledged. The at-large delegates, normally the party leaders and elected officials that typically number about 13 per state (usually 10 slots are allotted for elected officials, and three for the party leaders – state chairman, national committeeman, and national committeewoman), are not pledged.

Pledged delegates must vote for the candidate to whom they are committed on one to three ballots, depending upon state law. In all cases after the third ballot, pledged delegates become free and can then vote for any candidate. It is at this point when the wheeling and dealing begins. Unpledged delegates may vote their personal choice on all ballots.

With potentially as many as 14 candidates or more entering the Republican presidential campaign, and seeing only six winner-take-all entities so far (Ariz., Del., D.C., Fla., N.J. and Utah), the chances of spiraling into an open convention are realistic. The last time an open convention nominated a Republican candidate occurred in 1920 when Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding, an underdog at the beginning of the process, won on the tenth ballot. Sen. Harding then went on to win the general election, but died in office after serving only two years.

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