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Why Not an Open Convention?

A modest proposal.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By HUGH HEWITT
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Romney is uniquely positioned to captain the “open convention”/ “favorite sons and daughters” movement as he can honestly claim “favorite son” status in five states—Michigan where he was born, Massachusetts where he built his business and was the governor, New Hampshire where he has summered with his vast clan for decades, Utah where he moved to turn around and save the 2002 Olympics, and, yes, California where he now spends a great chunk of the year. Romney wasn’t listed in the Granite State poll, but he won there in ’12 and was second in ’08, and the contrarians up there might warm to the noncampaign campaign. If Romney’s other four “favorite son” states vote on March 1 or March 15, there would be little chance of any momentum candidate ending the primary season before it began.

If Romney were to declare a “five-state-plus” campaign for the purposes of pushing for an “open convention,” his donor networks and old staff would light up at least in part, as would the smiles of every governor who’d like a plausible reason to get his or her own name into the mix in 2016 without the heavy lifting of the endless campaign that chugs to life the day after the vote this fall. Even the handful of folks eyeing an old-fashioned start-to-finish run might embrace a campaign designed to keep a momentum play from running the board early.

Political reporters and talk hosts, of course, would swoon: Finally, the Holy Grail, a convention that isn’t scripted down to the minute—a real political news event would generate months of cable coverage.

Thus, Romney would be “in” but not “in in.” He could dismiss Iowa and South Carolina from the start and campaign—at a very leisurely pace—in his five core states, and make the arguments for an open convention: that extended attention and serious, structured debates are good for the party’s ideas, that a momentum candidate isn’t, that stuff happens and money needn’t be spent destroying everyone else on the front bench. He can also speak for all the governors and senators who have a stake in being listened to seriously. He’d be the candidate urging candidacies by Nikki Haley (S.C.), Susana Martinez (N.M.), and Mary Fallin (Okla.). A nice place on the political dial, that.

And if a five-state-plus campaign did bring about an open convention, the person most likely to benefit would be Romney’s running mate in 2012—Rep. Paul Ryan—a man who probably isn’t running in 2016 but who might be the likeliest candidate to bring the  party together after a dozen different folks amass significant delegate totals along the way. Another senior figure who might welcome a tenth of a campaign from Romney would be John Thune, the South Dakota senator who almost ran in 2012 but eyed his blossoming leadership prospects in the Senate and demurred. Thune could easily be South Dakota’s “favorite son” and perhaps some nearby states’ as well.

A good question is whether “favorite son” delegates are actually controlled by their candidates. I asked Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director, and the answer is complicated by the need to have a minimum number of states in your column to have your name placed in nomination. Rule 40 of the GOP presently requires the support of a majority of eight states to allow a name to be placed in nomination, which may require amendment if an open convention movement gains traction. The RNC did strengthen the rules binding delegates to their candidates in January, but the rules vary by state. Rule 40 could end up having unforeseen consequences in a year when a couple of dozen favorite sons/daughters picked up wins along the way, and the deadline for changing rules is September of this year. But if unprecedented stuff happens, rules have to be amended no matter the date. The RNC would certainly feel pressure from the successful favorite sons and daughters controlling the delegations that had empowered them to help guide the proceedings in Cleveland, but as of now, Rule 40 is a spanner in the works of an open convention. 

The party of Lincoln’s first victorious campaign—Lincoln’s own in 1860—began with an open convention. It met in Chicago in mid-May. (Thanks to the “Reince reforms,” 2016’s GOP gathering will be earlier than in recent years, in late June or early July.) Five candidates polled well on the first ballot in Chicago’s Wigwam, and it took three (and a half) ballots to get Lincoln over the top.

So if the 2012 nominee were to declare he wasn’t running a full-scale campaign, but would be seeking delegates in those five named states and a few others where no favorite son or daughter actually stepped forward, his “no, no, no, no, no” would remain intact while blocking a rush to judgment that could lead the
GOP to nominate a candidate with little chance of winning the general.

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