Commentary
10:30 am
Tue February 21, 2012

What if Romney Loses?

Four years ago, Michigan politicians believed their presidential primary would be meaningful and influential. It was anything but. The state broke both parties’ rules by holding it too early.

Barack Obama’s name was not on the ballot, and it was won by two candidates who ended up not winning their nominations.

This year’s primary was supposed to be a big yawn. Democrats have only one candidate, and on the Republican side, this was supposed to be just a brief stop in native son Mitt Romney’s coronation parade. Except that’s not how it is working out.

Most polls show Romney trailing here, running behind Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who lost his seat six years ago. It also seems to say that very few Michigan voters had even heard of Santorum a few months ago. What does this mean?

Well, clearly, Republican rank-and-file primary voters aren’t swooning with excitement at the prospect of a President Romney.

In those places where he’s won, like Florida, turnout has been down. If he loses in his birthplace, will that be the end?

Bill Ballenger, publisher of the newsletter "Inside Michigan Politics", has been watching campaigns in this state for nearly half a century. “I never believed this would happen, but it did,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that he thinks Romney’s defeat is inevitable. In fact, Romney now seems to be narrowing the gap in the polls. Ballenger told me if he had to bet, he still thinks the party leadership and the Romney machine would manage to pull out a victory here.

But if he does not, well, Romney has big problems. But neither Ballenger, nor anyone I know of, thinks that Santorum is a likely nominee even if he wins Michigan. What Ballenger thinks might happen instead is that national GOP strategists like Karl Rove would intervene to get some new candidates into the race -- Chris Christie, for example, or Indiana’s Mitch Daniels. Maybe even Jeb Bush.

“You could then have a brokered convention,“ Ballenger said, which would be a real throwback to the past.  Think of it: a case where the delegates to the convention actually choose the nominee. There hasn’t been a convention where the delegates took more than one ballot in 60 years.

There hasn’t been one in 36 where the outcome wasn’t certain before the convention started. But in the old days, nominations were determined at the convention all the time.

Adlai Stevenson and Wendell Willkie were dark horses drafted by the delegates after not competing in the primaries. Sometimes it took five, ten or more ballots to select a candidate. The Democratic convention in 1924 lasted 16 days and took 104 ballots to chose a nominee.

Nobody wants that again, but a convention that was a real exercise in politics could be very exciting and a national civics lesson. What isn‘t clear, however, is whether voters would accept someone who hadn’t fought and won in the primaries and caucuses.

This year, there’s a chance we just might find out. This Republican nomination still may be settled long before the convention. In fact, odds are it will be. But for the first time in a long time, there’s a real possibility it could be very different.