How Could the Republican Nomination Race Get Less Boring?

It’s clear now that Mitt Romney has the GOP nomination in the bag. But that makes for bad television. How strange would things have to get for him to lose?

How Could the Republican Nomination Race Get Less Boring?

Let me tell you what’s going to happen in the Republican nomination race. After much bitter recrimination and gnashing of far-right teeth, Mitt Romney will be the nominee. All those debates, including that crazy one where he made that $10,000 bet that everyone got excited about for like two days or so, wound up being flash-in-the-pan benefits to telegenic candidates who simply didn’t have the ground organization (or perhaps actual sanity) to get things done. Our UK cousins might call it Nick Clegg syndrome.

Instead, conventional wisdom has proven why it’s called that: the guys who worked the hardest in Iowa (Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney – yes, Romney didn’t put in much on-the-ground time there himself, but he waged a brilliant stealth campaign and his vicious Super PAC did the rest) will finish at the top of the pack in Iowa. Then Mitt Romney will win New Hampshire, social conservatives in South Carolina will have no other viable candidate to go to, and Romney will steamroll his way to the nomination, with only Ron Paul staying in the race until the bitter end.

There are a few fringe scenarios in which this isn’t true – Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight dipped his toe into a couple of them earlier in the week, but now that Romney has stepped into Iowa like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, over the bloody corpses of the rest of the far more interesting characters in this little play, the chances of a non-Romney nominee rely on some very outlandish assumptions. Yet “outlandish” is what journalists and political junkies like me live for – otherwise, as Iggy Pop once prophetically said, “I’m bored.

With that said, “outlandish” is not flat-out impossible. So let’s discuss a few scenarios, from most to least likely.

The Second Coming of Rick Perry
I mentioned a while back that Perry had the third-best chance of winning the nomination, around when Gingrich was atop the polls and Perry was in free-fall down around Huntsman territory, because Perry had money and organization. He still has those things–in fact, he’s got better organization than he had back then, since he’s finally been convinced to get rid of his Texas buddies who let him slide on things like, uh, debate prep, and build a real national team focused on retail politics and strategies for victory.

The question is whether Perry can get back into the race at this juncture. The fight will very rapidly become one for oxygen, let alone airtime, in GOP circles, especially if Romney outperforms his mid-twenty-percent poll numbers in Iowa (which I think he will). He needs to finish no lower than fourth, and the other people finishing ahead of him have to be unelectable: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Then he needs to show to social conservatives that Santorum is unelectable and that a “protest vote” for him is worth less than a chance at an actual national-stage non-Romney nominee, however battered by his lackluster earlier performance.

Perry realizes this, which is why he’s hammering Santorum in Iowa ads. If he can get Iowa to vote Romney-Paul-Santorum-Perry, he can take his money (and his time) to South Carolina, where Santorum doesn’t even have his act together in the slightest and argue that he’s learned from his mistakes and stands before the party a humble, contrite, and hard-right electable alternative. Romney will win New Hampshire, but because he’s up by so much there it’s not really going to mean anything. Then Perry will just Tebow at the altar of the embittered reactionaries and hope that their hatred of Romney eclipses the feeling of inevitability that’ll come when he wins both early contests.

Huntsmania Sets In
Jon Huntsman has gotten no “second look” (or even a first look) from Republicans, probably because they perceive him as being effectively the same as (or even more to the left of) Romney. He and his billionaire father’s Super PAC have been putting up ads in New Hampshire trying to combat this image, instead emphasizing Huntsman as a “principled conservative” and so forth, but what they really need is for Romney’s expectations to fail him in Iowa to have a chance at erasing the huge deficit they now face at the polls. Basically, both Santorum and Paul need to outperform Romney on caucus night. A third-place finish for Romney behind two unelectable types will damage his credibility after he raised expectations himself.

Then, in the frantic run-up to New Hampshire, Huntsman just needs to let Romney have it. He just wants to be President, Huntsman can say, but I want to fix the country. There’re two scheduled back-to-back grueling New Hampshire debates, one on January 7 and one in the morning on January 8. Hunstman needs to just let his epic-statesman flag fly if he really wants to win – look Presidential, come out with guns blazing against Obama and Romney both, then pray for strong press. New Hampshire loves the underdog (John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Pat Buchanan, etc). Huntsman could play the role, but he no longer controls his own destiny – Romney needs to underperform in Iowa for him to have a shot.

Newt as Hillary Clinton (now there’s an image)
How on earth could Gingrich pull something off at this stage? He’s cratered any goodwill he had by still refusing to take retail campaigning very seriously until the bitter end as his critics assailed him on all sides. Well, he has a couple of late-breaking endorsements, and he did cry in Iowa. Hillary Clinton famously won New Hampshire after a moment of sentimentality the weekend before the primary, but that was coupled with a debate performance in which Barack Obama’s detached, cerebral cockiness got the better of him and he told her “you’re likeable enough.”

Nobody really feels as sorry when people pile on Newt Gingrich, because while he shares that ambition and drive that wound up turning people off to (and then back on to) Hillary Clinton, he is also really running a terrible campaign and deserves what he gets. But there is just a transient sliver of a chance that Newt could pull something off in Iowa. It would basically require the total collapse of Michele Bachmann (which is already happening) and an underwhelming showing from Ron Paul (which the most recent poll out of Iowa picked up some tremors of). If he can pull away the non-libertarians who were going to vote Paul because of his slick campaign and Bachmann’s last loyal core, he could finish third in Iowa.

That, given the now-dismal expectations for Newt, would be a major victory. Then, like Perry, he could ride into South Carolina and Florida (where he has a stronger base of support than Perry does) and make the same sort of anti-Romney pitch. He has less money and less organization than Perry, but his wealthy friends with new Super PACs could just turn Gingrich from Play-doh into Teflon.

A Spurt of Santorum
Few of today’s internet-savvy types can resist making jokes about how effectively Dan Savage ruined the Santorum family name in revenge for the former Senator’s breathtakingly bigoted comparison of homosexual relationships to “man-on-dog sex,” which is one of the many reasons why it is terribly unlikely that a Senator who lost his re-election bid in 2006 will have a snowball’s chance in hell at beating Barack Obama next year, but he could come in first in Iowa if, as seems to be happening, the formerly bitter and stay-at-home evangelical voters came out to support him.

The thing is, from there, Santorum has no money. He has a couple of Super PACs backing him with fundamentalist Catholic/evangelical money, but that’s about it. Nate Silver was very right in comparing a win for Santorum in Iowa to a lesser Mike Huckabee boomlet: interesting and damaging to Romney, the front-runner, but not ultimately predictive of future success. Thing is, Huckabee was undone in South Carolina not from his weakness but from the diluted field around him, which allowed John McCain a victory there and the momentum to power McCain through Florida and Super Tuesday to the nomination.

In order to have a prayer in South Carolina, Santorum needs Iowa to finish him-Paul-Romney-Gingrich. He needs Bachmann to drop out (she will) and endorse him (less likely but definitely a possibility, especially if he wins Iowa by a wide margin). Then he needs Perry to drop out, which, even if he finishes fifth, is not entirely likely. At that point, Perry would be playing for posterity rather than keeps, though, and Santorum might be able to marginalize him. Then he would need Gingrich to make mistakes. This is, as we have seen, rather likely. Santorum is a dogged retail campaigner. He spent forever criss-crossing Iowa. He’s not going to have the time to do that in South Carolina, but, unlike Newt and his lazy/disorganized incredible shrinking bus tour, he has the drive.

So it’s a very tight squeeze, but if he wedges himself in just right, Santorum will be spreading everywhere before long. (You see what I mean?)

Ron Paul Ron Paul Ron Paul Ron Paul
Ron Paul Ron Paul? Ron Paul Ron Paul Ron Paul Ron Paul. DR. RON PAUL M.D. MEDICINE MAN. Freedom. Gold. Liberty. Racist newsletters. Speeches to the John Birch Society. More liberty. Blimps. Wait, what were we talking about? Ah, yes. Ron Paul, a man whose fervent internet-commentator supporters continue to ignore the fact that admitting you didn’t know the horrible things that went out with your name on them for years disqualifies you for executive office as much as actually writing those horrible things yourself. (I am so done with talking about this, by the way – an excellent summary of what a disingenuous craven opportunist Ron Paul is can be found right here if you’re interested).

Ron Paul is not going to be the Republican Party’s nominee. But he will stick around the race forever, because he has the money and nothing better to do with his time. And if Romney does not come away with a clear path to the nomination by February (say he wins only New Hampshire and Florida, but it’s a close one in Florida, while Paul wins Iowa and Perry wins South Carolina), Paul will benefit proportionally in the delegate count in a crowded field. And that may encourage the others in the race not to release their delegates.

Why does that matter? Because if for some crazy reason, Paul keeps siphoning just enough support away from Romney, even in the later states where no one else will compete, he could talk his way into the dream of every political hack: a brokered convention. The chances of this happening are effectively zero, but not actually zero, which is why I had to include this on here. Again, this will not mean that Ron Paul will magically get the nomination. Rather, after the first ballot, the floor will be thrown into chaos, and all the delegates will then be free to vote their consciences.

This will totally bone the careful choreography of the modern-day convention. Romney will be furious and demand that his delegates stay loyal, but there’s a high chance that a lot of those delegates will be friends with, say, Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie or John Thune, who will just have to serve their country and throw their hats in the ring. Ron Paul will be off on the sidelines, cackling and demanding that crazy things like a return to the gold standard be put in the new party platform in order for someone to secure his delegates’ votes. Cable news will become convention central with hundreds of delegates milling about and smoke-filled rooms aplenty.

…yeah, this isn’t going to happen. But it is not totally outside of the realm of possibility. And that is enough for Ron Paul. Ron Paul Ron Paul Ron Paul no parents no rules spring break Ron Paul.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. And political news will be boring for awhile until the real election race gets started. But these ponderables could sure make life more exciting in the unlikely event that any of them come true.

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photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more

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