‘Brokered’ GOP convention? Get ready, say political strategists

With a breakaway front-runner still yet to emerge in the GOP race, political observers and senior Republican strategists are beginning to seriously contemplate what a brokered convention in Tampa Bay might look like.

A candidate must win the support of 1,144 delegates to become the Republican nominee for president. While most commentators agree that Mitt Romney is the only candidate with a realistic shot of reaching that number before the convention in August, that outcome is by no means assured, especially after his losses in Alabama and Mississippi.

Brokered conventions in the modern era have been exceedingly rare. The last time Republican delegates arrived at the GOP convention uncertain who their nominee would be was 1976, the year Ronald Reagan nearly snagged the nomination away from President Gerald Ford.

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley recalls how that fight came down to the Mississippi delegation — which would have gone for Reagan, but for the maneuvering of White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney — and a large number of uncommitted delegates who were successfully wooed by Ford aide James Baker.

Those efforts allowed Ford to win the necessary delegates on the first ballot. A second ballot would have allowed delegates free rein to vote for whomever they wished; odds are most have would have swung to Reagan.

“If Reagan had been successful in forcing it to a second balloting, he probably would have been the nominee because he had pockets of hidden delegate strength,” Shirley told The Daily Caller. (RELATED: Full coverage of the 2012 campaign)

A brokered convention today would likely be far messier than in 1976, Shirley cautioned. A better parallel, he said, might be the Democratic convention in 1924, where no candidate was chosen until the 108th ballot.

“Who’s to say you won’t see a situation like that?” Shirley, whose PR firm is working with the campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said. “That was over after 16 days of balloting.”

Much of the maneuvering would come down to fights over arcane bits of parliamentary procedure because state parties, not the national GOP, are the ones who really hold the power at brokered conventions. Each state party operates under a different set of voting rules, and each campaign’s ability to understand which state’s delegation can do what — and when — could be a deciding factor.

“Every state is different. Some states, you vote for the candidate to whom you were pledged in perpetuity. Others, you’re released after the first ballot; others, you’re released after the second ballot; others you’re released after the third ballot,” Shirley said. The Republican National Committee’s wishes, he said, would be “utterly, completely irrelevant.”

“They can’t even buy a hot dog,” Shirley quipped.

Conservative leader Morton Blackwell, a veteran of the 1976 convention and a member of the Republican National Committee’s rule-making body, told TheDC there’s no real way to predict what would happen if a nominee were not chosen on the first ballot.

“Understand that the most important factor in deciding how people vote on the second ballot is their personal preferences,” he told TheDC. “People are going to vote for whom they think is best. Some of them could be influenced by a senator, a governor, a member of Congress, a state party leader.”

“I’m sure a lot of people are going to try to exercise influence,” he added, “but people get there, they went through the arduous process of becoming delegates. They pay big money to make the trip, and for some people that is a major expense. They’re going to want the guy they think is the right one, and they probably won’t be as malleable as people might suggest.”