Pennsylvania’s presidential primary, held in late April after more than half of the other states have already voted, means residents of Penn’s Woods generally have little impact on the selection of the nominees of the two major political parties. Legislation has been proposed to move the primary to an earlier date, however, it is unlikely to happen in time to take effect for 2016.
But, there is a scenario in which Pennsylvania’s delegation to next year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio could play a major role in the selection of the nominee. That would be if the primary season fails to yield a candidate with a majority of delegate votes triggering a rare brokered convention.
In recent decades the quadrennial nominating conventions have been little more than stage managed coronations of the candidates who already had collected enough delegate votes through the primary and caucus process. The last time a convention really mattered was in 1976 when incumbent President Gerald Ford arrived in Detroit still locked in a battle with Ronald Reagan for the nomination. Ford prevailed, but was unable to shake off the after effects of the Watergate scandal and lost the General Election to Jimmy Carter.
Prospects for a brokered GOP convention in 2016 grow greater every week. That’s the frequency with which candidates are entering the presidential contest with 15 or more candidates ultimately expected to compete. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found five of those candidates – Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee – all tied for the lead with 10% of the vote each. It could be argued those candidates constitute a top tier, but clearly no one has taken command of the race.
It is, of course, still early in a climate where even one or two news cycles can completely alter the political landscape, but the Republican bench is so deep every one of the top five, and just about all of the others, can lay claim to a base constituency and make the argument that they are qualified to become the next president. Few, however, can outline a plausible path to the nomination.
The winnowing process could still occur, especially if one candidate manages to win two out of three of the earliest contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and then go on to dominate the so-called Super Tuesday primaries. But, 15 candidates with diverse geographic and ideological bases within the party presage a Balkanization of the vote and the allocation of delegates.
If the Republican Party arrives in Cleveland with no one candidate having a majority of votes, a quirk in Pennsylvania’s delegate rules could put the commonwealth’s delegation in a strong position to be the king-maker. Unlike most other states, all of Pennsylvania’s delegates run uncommitted. Republican delegates are elected by congressional district, with an additional group selected by the Republican State Committee. Pennsylvania will have 71 delegate votes, making it the seventh largest delegation. While candidates for delegate can express support for a particular presidential candidate, they are not legally bound to vote for that candidate at the convention.
This means Pennsylvania’s delegation will arrive on the shores of Lake Erie technically uncommitted to any of the candidates and free to wheel and deal with potential nominees. Assuming any degree of unity among the delegation, Pennsylvania’s delegate votes could be enough to put a candidate over the top or at least provide major momentum in a brokered scenario.
It would take all the stars aligning for this to play out, but in a year where there are an unprecedented number of candidates participating in a long string of primaries and caucuses anything is possible. If it does come down to a brokered convention Pennsylvania might once again become the Keystone State.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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