photo by Mallory Benedict, courtesy PBS NewsHour
The Republican Party is starting to get nervous.
With time running out before voters make their wishes known in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the fight for the party’s presidential nomination remains splintered between the various factions of the GOP voting base. Recent polls, including one from CNN that arrived earlier this week, continue to show Donald Trump as the clear front-runner, followed by Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz and trailed by Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio and the rest of the pack. While polls are not always predictive, especially this early in the process, Trump’s staying power thus far has surprised many onlookers.
Part of the explanation could be that this year’s race has exposed existing ideological fault lines between groups traditionally associated with the Republican Party. Nate Silver suggested just this explanation in a recent post on FiveThirtyEight, discussing Trump through the lens of “party establishment” and attempting to explain why prominent members of the GOP seem to have done little to arrest Trump’s rise, other than the occasional tardy denouncement of his more extreme rhetoric. American political parties have always been coalitions of diverse groups, but this year’s contest is exposing the rifts between them, at least on the Republican side.
The Republican Party also recently redrew its primary map, giving more influence to Southern states that have often backed nominees who struggle in other parts of the country. On top of this, the party established a new method for counting delegates in early contests that will spread them among competitors, preventing a candidate from pulling away early in the process.
As a recent article in The Wall Street Journal explained, the conditions might be ripe for a scenario in which no single candidate makes it to the Republican convention in July with a clear majority of delegates. A candidate will need 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination outright, a feat that is looking more and more challenging in the still-crowded field.
This situation, known as a contested or brokered convention, was routine before the era of presidential primary elections, but has all but disappeared in recent history. The last winning presidential candidate to come out of a brokered convention was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The most recent brokered convention to produce a Republican presidential nominee at all was Thomas Dewey in 1948, an election he famously lost to Harry Truman.
Delegates are obliged to vote for a particular candidate in the first ballot at the convention, but not thereafter. If there is no obvious winner right away, the convention could become what the Journal described as a “free-for-all” for the first time in either major party since 1952.
Suppose the GOP does find itself hopelessly deadlocked among social conservatives, fiscal hawks and “mainstream” candidates who appeal primarily to the business community. To whom might Republican delegates turn to bridge the gap?
I don’t know. But I do know that the last time Republicans faced this exact dilemma, which was last year after John Boehner stepped down as House speaker, they turned to Rep. Paul Ryan.
My personal hope is that they do it again.
The discussion of this possibility is not widespread, but several commentators have suggested Ryan as the solution to the GOP’s primary mess. Though Ryan dismissed such speculation as “ridiculous” when a reporter asked him about it in December, he was similarly dismissive of taking on the role of speaker before his party decided that it needed him.
I think there is a lot of sense in this potential outcome. Ryan was the vice presidential candidate in 2012, giving him valuable national campaign experience. He was the only House Republican who was able to pull the factions together on Boehner’s departure. He is as respected for his smarts and policy ideas as for his ability to bridge philosophical divides. He is a social conservative, opposed to abortion out of what appears to be sincerely held belief rather than political necessity (in sharp contrast to Trump, for instance). Yet his willingness to compromise could make him a reasonable choice for undecided voters, even those who disagree with him on individual issues.
Perhaps most importantly come November’s voting, Ryan is a genuinely simple man with a lifestyle to which Americans can relate, from his middle-class finances to his emphasis on spending time at home with his children. Democrats can’t possibly paint him as an out-of-touch plutocrat - especially not Hillary Clinton, that self-proclaimed archenemy of the Wall Street that pays her $300,000 a speech.
Democrats may be perplexed by Trump, afraid of Rubio and eager to face Cruz. But if Republicans can’t agree on any of the above, we could conceivably agree once again on Ryan, who I suspect could be prevailed upon to answer the call of party and country. That is the real nightmare scenario for Democrats.