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Brokered Conventions, Last-Minute Comebacks, and Other Crazy Ways the GOP Could End Up With a Nominee

Has there ever been a worse year for the conventional wisdom in handicapping a presidential primary race? Sure, the pundit pack has been grotesquely wrong before, from over-hyping Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2008 to smugly dismissing Howard Dean’s potential to galvanize anti-war Democrats in 2004. But never have the political railbirds so frequently compounded their errors as they reeled from one smug, but erroneous, prediction to another. The list of miscues by the columnists and TV talking heads is only rivaled by Dick Cheney’s record of intelligence estimates.

So far, this reign of error includes Jon Huntsman ballyhooed as the most fabled returnee from China since Marco Polo; Newt Gingrich mocked as irrelevant as Mikhail Gorbachev in 21st century politics; Tim Pawlenty promoted as Mitt Romney’s major challenger (yikes, that was me); Michele Bachmann anointed as the queen of Iowa after her Pyrrhic victory in the straw poll; Rick Perry trumpeted as the best campaigner to come out of Texas since Sam Houston; and—most embarrassing—Herman Cain portrayed as someone more than a pizza vendor turned motivational speaker.

This Wrong-Way Corrigan record seems doubly peculiar for a political cycle in which so many smart analysts are parsing the polls and chronicling the candidates. But maybe the problem is exactly that: Our punditry is suffering from an excess of rationality coupled with an unprecedented over-reliance on polls. As a result, most blue-chip handicappers end up assuming that presidential politics will follow an orderly trajectory. How ludicrous. If only these political soothsayers had looked back to 20th century precedents for guidance, they might have grasped the inherent messiness of picking a president.

After covering nine presidential campaigns, I am confident in my ability to prophesize just one thing: The current media storyline of a protracted Gingrich-versus-Romney struggle through the primaries is oversimplified. The eventual GOP nominee may well have a four-letter name (Newt or Mitt), but there undoubtedly will be hairpin turns along the way. To give a hint of the dizzying possibilities ahead, here are five precedents from bygone races that may be echoed on the road to the Republican convention in Tampa:

1. The original comeback kid (1984). Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who had entered the Democratic race as a top-tier candidate, was broke and on the ropes by November 1983. With Walter Mondale and John Glenn dominating the headlines, Hart was reduced to lamenting, “It’s been six months since I was rumored to be dead. How long do I have to stay alive to prove I’m not dead?” The answer: Just long enough for the New Hampshire primary. A surprise but weak (17 percent) second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses gave Hart a media boost. Then in one of the biggest upsets in primary politics, Hart defied the polls and trounced Mondale by 10 percentage points in the first primary. Exit polls revealed that 35 percent of New Hampshire Democrats had made up their minds in the final four days before the primary. Hart swept these voters by a four-to-one margin.

2012 Moral: It’s premature to completely write off Bachmann and Rick Santorum in Iowa and Huntsman in New Hampshire. Remember that in 2008 40 percent of Iowa Republicans and 50 percent of New Hampshire GOP voters were still undecided a week before they voted. 

2. Perseverance in defeat (1976). After losing five straight primaries to Gerald Ford, including a stinging defeat in his birth state of Illinois, Ronald Reagan was a case study in the folly of challenging a sitting president for the nomination. With his fundraisers coming up empty and his candidacy portrayed as a spoiler, Reagan made his last stand in the North Carolina primary. The difference this time was that Reagan unveiled a new issue: the Panama Canal. “We bought it; we paid for it; it’s ours; and we’re going to keep it” was the Gipper’s new refrain. Not only did Reagan win North Carolina handily, but he roared back into the race and carried the fight against Ford to the Republican Convention.

2012 Moral:As Gingrich’s resurrection demonstrates, a candidate these days can keep going without money or momentum as long as there are debates and Fox News interview slots. While Perry is never going to morph into Demosthenes as a debater, he is the sort of ideologue who could hit on an unexpected issue that arouses the conservative base. In fact, in an election season when all Republicans are vying to be Reagan-esque, maybe it is time to get the Panama Canal give-away out of mothballs.

3. Buyer’s remorse (1976). Despite Jimmy Carter’s daunting delegate lead, California Governor Jerry Brown and Idaho Senator Frank Church entered the race in early spring and between them won 10 late-season primaries. The ABC (Anybody But Carter) movement continued to search for alternatives, attempting to coax Hubert Humphrey into the race, but the effort soon fizzled and the unlikely nomination of the former one-term Georgia governor was secured easily at the convention.

2012 Moral: What happens to the Republican race if Gingrich roars through January, destroying Romney and sweeping Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida? GOP insiders like Karl Rove could easily conclude that a Gingrich nomination would cost the Republicans the White House, the potential to win back the Senate, and quite possibly control of the House. Faced with a potential replay of the 1964 Barry Goldwater rout, the party establishment might again quickly start fantasizing about Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, or Chris Christie. The five-week interlude between Florida (January 30) and Super Tuesday (March 6) could be dominated by these GOP if-onlys. Political analyst Rhodes Cook has calculated that a surprise candidate who entered the race on February 1 could still compete for more than half the convention delegates.

4. Genuine Draft (1964). The 1952 election was a choice between the reluctant and the very reluctant, as both Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson had to be coaxed into running. But the ultimate political draft occurred in 1964 when Henry Cabot Lodge won the New Hampshire Republican primary on a write-in vote without every leaving Saigon, where he was serving as LBJ’s ambassador to South Vietnam.

2012 Moral: Following the Lodge example, maybe Huntsman would be in better political shape right now if he were still ambassador to China. But more to the point, social media make write-in campaigns much easier than they were in the 1960s, as Lisa Murkowski proved last year by winning the Alaska Senate race without being on the November ballot. If Republican buyer’s remorse does set in after the Florida primary, a late-starting candidate could run write-in campaigns in states where he has missed the filing deadline to get on the ballot. In fact, a “Draft Jeb” campaign could be launched without the active help from the would-be candidate and paid for by a SuperPAC with no contribution limits.

5. To the convention floor (1968). It has been three decades since there was even a hint of drama left in a nomination fight by convention time. But even without favorite-son candidates, party bosses, blocs of uncommitted delegates, and spontaneous floor demonstrations, it is theoretically possible for the Republicans to arrive in Tampa without a de facto nominee. The model for this kind of collective indecision could be another Florida convention: the Republican gathering in Miami Beach in 1968. Richard Nixon was the front-runner who aroused little passion (Romney would be his obvious 2012 clone). Nelson Rockefeller was Nixon’s bloodied rival who could not win the nomination on his own. (Gingrich or Perry might play that role this time around). The wild card was Ronald Reagan in 1968 (think Christie or Jeb Bush), who dramatically declared his candidacy at the convention. Caught in a pincer movement with Rockefeller on his left and Reagan on his right, Nixon came close to losing his first-ballot majority and the nomination itself.

2012 Moral: For political junkies, an open convention is the equivalent of seeing a unicorn on the front lawn. Alas, the odds of such dramatic uncertainty remain slight since few Republicans want to wait until the end of August to pick their nominee to run against an incumbent president who has been campaigning hard since the 2010 elections. But with Ron Paul winning perhaps as many as 20 percent of the delegates, the parallels to 1968 are too intriguing to ignore.

THE DANGER FOR all political reporters is to fall under the hypnotic sway of false certainty. Presidential politics is the ultimate anything-can-happen enterprise, although the odds are indeed looking small for a Herman Cain comeback.

I acquired my sense of caution the hard way. Back in 1984, impatient with the lead time of news magazines in those days, I wrote a story for the pre-New Hampshire primary issue of Newsweek devoid of all the usual hedge words. Simply put, I called Walter Mondale’s lead in New Hampshire “unassailable” and, in the same passage, declared, “If he wins a titanic triumph on Tuesday, it would take an iceberg to deny him the nomination.”

The iceberg named Gary Hart hit hard. And I was left pretty much like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic. As a press-bus colleague put it to me when I arrived in New Hampshire as exit-poll rumors of Hart’s heart-stopping victory spread, “You blew it.” Some career-changing moments you never forget. 

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD.