Republican Race Open, But Not Likely to Stay That Way

Andrew E. Busch

December 1, 2007

As the Republican presidential nomination race hurtles toward the first vote in Iowa on January 3, it is more apparent than ever that there is no clear front-runner either nationally or in key early-voting states. Rudy Giuliani has lost considerable ground over the last month, and may be on the verge of conceding New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee has gained, but holds a seemingly tenuous lead in Iowa and is still trailing nationally. John McCain appears to be making a comeback nationally, in New Hampshire, and maybe even in Iowa, while some Iowa commentators claim to detect some subterranean movement toward Fred Thompson. Mitt Romney is still within striking distance in Iowa, still holds a shrinking lead in New Hampshire, and gained the endorsement of National Review, but seems not to have gained significant traction from his much-ballyhooed speech on religion. Even Ron Paul seems poised to play some kind of role, though probably not that of a winner—after a recent fundraising haul of $6 million.

While much commentary has focused on Huckabee’s appeal to evangelicals, there are two other factors contributing to his rise, either of which can be reversed or negated in the days ahead. First, he has gained from the fact, as I noted here some weeks ago, that he is the only Republican candidate to have consolidated a hold on his “niche” within the race. When Sam Brownback departed the field, Huckabee was left as the only representative of George W. Bush-style “compassionate conservatism”—heavy on social conservatism but light on limited government. On the other hand, McCain and Giuliani continue splitting the votes of the national-security, independent-appeal niche, while Thompson and Romney continue competing over the reliable conservative niche. Huckabee is competitive now largely because neither the McCain-Giuliani niche nor the Thompson-Romney niche has been consolidated.

The second factor helping Huckabee and hurting Giuliani is almost certainly the precipitous decline of national security as a highly salient issue. With dramatic improvement in Iraq and the release of the National Intelligence Estimate claiming a reduced threat from Iran, evangelical voters who saw terrorism as the number-one issue have perhaps felt free to give domestic issues a higher priority in their vote choice. Unfortunately for Huckabee, he may have stepped on his own feet by highlighting foreign policy in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs. In it, Huckabee was harshly critical of President Bush; he left the way open for national security to re-establish itself as central, and this on terms not helpful to himself in the Republican primaries. For the next several weeks, his opponents are sure to pick fights with him over the article, making it more difficult to capitalize on the potential shift in public interest.

In any event, the unsettled nature of the Republican race has led some commentators to suggest that Republicans are headed to a “brokered convention” like the conventions of old, when power brokers made deals at the convention itself. The idea here is that the GOP field is so splintered that no one will emerge from the primaries with a majority of delegates, forcing the decision back to the convention in a meaningful way for the first time since 1976. However, realistically, it is highly unlikely that such a scenario will emerge.

The key to the modern nominating system is not the accumulation of delegates but the appearance of victories in state contests. In the absence of victories, contributions dry up, volunteers lose enthusiasm, and the media lose interest. This is why losing candidates drop out of the race sometimes long before the winner has officially won enough delegates to clinch the nomination. In other words, in recent nomination contests, the race has sorted itself out into a two or three way contest very quickly. This phenomenon will probably appear again in early 2008. As the field narrows, it is less and less likely that the leading candidate will fail to build a commanding lead.

Indeed, if the 2004 Democratic contest is any guide, the result of a wide-open beginning, with no clear front-runner, might well be the quick victory of whichever contestant establishes himself as the leader first. Because of the geography of the race, that might take Republicans a bit longer in 2008 than it took Democrats in 2004—but it might only be a bit longer. Candidate strategies that count on pulling out the nomination despite losing early by winning states that vote well into the primary schedule are risky; recent history is against them. Yet a brokered convention scenario depends on candidates coming back to win later primaries after having done poorly in earlier ones.

There is one other reason not to expect a brokered convention, no matter how splintered the primary vote might end up. It is far from clear who the brokers are, or how many delegates are truly free agents. State and local party leaders no longer control large blocs of delegates who can be moved to and fro depending on the outcome of negotiations. There are sometimes such blocs in the form of union members among Democratic delegates, but it is not clear that there are any Republican equivalents. For this reason if a deal has to be made, it is much more likely to be made between the candidates themselves before the convention ever meets. And the pressures of democratic legitimacy in a plebiscitary system make it very likely that the ultimate winner would be the candidate who is perceived as having the most support among Republican voters at the end of the primary season, rather than the compromise “dark-horse” candidate oft-seen in days of yore.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.