Could the GOP Have a Brokered Convention?

All the feverish talk ignores the delegate math and the election calendar.

The volatile Republican presidential contest has provoked feverish talk in the media and the blogosphere about a brokered or contested convention in late August, when 2,286 Republican delegates gather in Tampa, Fla. Here's how those scenarios would unfold.

A brokered convention would see a new candidate—someone other than Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum—enter the remaining primaries or parachute in during the convention (if no existing candidate has secured a majority of delegates). In backroom deals, either based partly on the strength of his late primary performances or only on the discretion of party leaders, he would become the nominee.

A contested convention, on the other hand, would see no dark horse enter but none of the existing candidates arrive in Tampa with a 1,144 majority of delegates. Lots of wheeling and dealing would ensue, and after several ballots a nominee would emerge from the four current candidates.

Is either scenario likely? Let's put it this way: The odds are greater that there's life on Pluto than that the GOP has a brokered convention. And while there's a better chance of a contested convention, it's still highly unlikely.

Consider the calendar and the math. After Super Tuesday on March 6, a new candidate could still file for the Nebraska beauty contest, the Minnesota caucuses, and the primaries in New Mexico, California, Utah, South Dakota, New Jersey and Texas. Those eight contests have 519 delegates at stake: 238 awarded winner-takes-all, 241 split proportionally and 40 unpledged.

If a new candidate gets all the winner-takes-all delegates (unlikely since 222 in California and New Jersey are awarded by congressional district, not statewide), plus half those awarded proportionally, he still would have just 378 delegates of the 1,144 needed for nomination. At least two current candidates are likely to have far more. Why would they step aside for a newcomer?

Meanwhile, a brokered convention needs party bosses, and today there aren't any. In the old days, party chiefs often led delegations of regulars who took orders and depended on patronage. No longer. In some states, winning candidates don't even pick their delegates—party conventions do. This means that while the delegation is committed to support a candidate for a certain number of ballots, many individual delegates remain loyal to other candidates. That makes it more difficult for anyone in a smoke-filled bargaining session to deliver a large number of delegates.

Besides, who is available for the role of savior? All of last year's heartthrobs—including Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie—have again disavowed any interest in running. Why enter the race at the end, facing long odds, rather than at the beginning, with much better ones?

Sarah Palin has said she "would do whatever I could to help" in a brokered convention. But is it realistic to think that millions of Republicans who voted in primaries and caucuses would be happy to have a standard-bearer who had skipped most or all of the primary contests? A brokered convention would split the party and send it into the general election angry and divided. It would be a recipe for disaster.

As for a contested convention: This last happened for the GOP in 1976. Neither President Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan had a majority when delegates arrived in Kansas City. The nomination was decided by the unpledged Mississippi delegation swinging in behind Ford. But there are far fewer delegations in 2012 that will arrive in Tampa unpledged.

It's also important to remember that, according to the Republican National Committee, delegates have been officially awarded in just four contests. Missouri's primary was just a beauty contest, and the caucus states have county, congressional-district and state conventions to go through later this spring before their delegations are set, all of which will be affected by what happens in the race between now and then.

There are 48 still to go (including D.C., American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands and Guam). And once a candidate starts winning, they tend to keep winning, especially beginning in April when more states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis.

In a smart analysis, Davidson College Prof. Josh Putnam predicts that it could take until late May for anyone to get a majority, assuming the leading candidate receives only 49% in any contest. But after Super Tuesday, the race is likely to narrow to just two significant candidates, and one of them will probably get more than 50% in most of the remaining contests.

The Republican nominee will almost certainly come from the existing field. Though media questions and debates have dinged them all up, whoever emerges is likely to be stronger for having gone through this grueling process. And deserving of respect for having thrown his hat in the ring when others didn't.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.