Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Iowa Republicans Face Possible Convention

The Convention Scenario

It's now three Iowa Republicans officially in the governor's race, with newcomer Christian Fong of Cedar Rapids joining the Sioux City Two, Christopher Rants and Bob Vander Plaats. Mentioners are mentioning several others including Rod Roberts, Jerry Behn, Paul McKinley and even blast from the past Terry Branstad. (Seriously.)

It's unlikely all of these guys will get in, or even stay in. Fong's rollout is being dogged by the same "donated to Democrats" issue that was probably critical in Peter Teahen's narrow (120 votes) loss to Mariannette Miller-Meeks last year. But it's clear that we're not going to see a one on one Vander Plaats vs. Not Vander Plaats race. Maybe one candidate consolidates support and becomes the consensus Anyone But, but the differing geographic bases of the potential contenders makes that less likely.

The big field means the Iowa GOP could be faced with a post-primary nominating convention next summer if no one gets to the 35 percent required by state law to win the nomination outright.

The convention scenario was in Ed Fallon's plans on the Democratic side in 2006, as he urged supporters to go to the sparsely attended off-cycle caucuses and split into gubernatorial preference groups. At the time it looked like a four-way race, five if you count Sal Mohamed. But Chet Culver annexed rival Patty Judge as a running mate, which made the brokered nomination less likely. (Still, Culver only won the primary with 39 percent.)

But even in a three-way race a convention is possible, and indeed almost happened to the Republicans in 2002:

Vander Plaats63,07731.66%

1,746 votes less and Gross would have been under 35 percent.

The convention scenario, of course, did happen that same year in the 5th congressional district, where the four candidates all landed between 21 and 31 percent in the primary. Steve King went into that convention with two big advantages. He had the most votes in the primary (which may have been the last time Steve King could claim the moral high ground) and he was the most conservative candidate. In a setting where the core of the core of the activists control the process, ideological intensity matters, and with the safe district, Republicans weren't constrained by worries about winning in the fall.

Thus a convention scenario is favorable to Vander Plaats. Looking at the 2002 results he has a base close to, but just short of, 35 percent, and the question is how much room does he have to expand on that. (He also, unlike 2002, has to share his regional base with Rants.) 31 percent was last place in a three way race, but might be the top of a five candidate field.

BVP also seems like the most likely candidate to get his people to an obscure January caucus with no presidential race at stake. At least no IMMEDIATE presidential race; with BVP and Mike Huckabee on board with each other, this could become a presidential proxy war.

The 2006 Democratic caucus-convention period was a breakthrough for the Iowa Democratic blogosphere, the first big story we collectively covered in detail beyond the traditional media. The Republican caucuses will be harder to track because Republicans don't break into preference groups. They just elect their delegates to the next level, which means tracking gubernatorial preferences will be an intense exercise in inside baseball and Republican Kremlinology. All sorts of other agendas will be mixed in; with the low turnout, you'll have a disproportionate number of people who care more about the platform or who gets to be county chair than they care about governor. (Same thing's true on our side.)

It should be good theater, but in the end might not be good democracy or good for the Republicans. (Not that I'm all of a sudden in charge of what's good for Republicans.) They could easily see their least electable candidate nominated by a low-turnout convention process, even though 70 percent or more of the primary voters favored someone else or ANYone else. This is the kind of scenario that instant runoff voting was born to address.

Coming up: how local factors in one county (mine) can ripple through the race.

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