At the past 16 Republican National Conventions, the party’s presidential nominee has been selected on the first ballot. That long streak might end next year. For the first time since 1948, when the GOP nominated Thomas E. Dewey for president after three rounds of voting, Republicans might take more than one ballot to settle on their nominee.
A few factors have increased the chances of a multi-ballot convention. First, Republicans have the largest field of serious contenders in history: 17 candidates entered the race and 15 remain. The bigger the field, the longer it could take to settle the contest.
Five candidates are polling as asterisks in the Real Clear Politics average: Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. It’s hard to imagine them breaking out.
Another five candidates are polling at less than 5% on average but have enough money or stage presence to last at least through February’s Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. They are: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. They might not endure past the early contests unless they dramatically beat expectations.
That leaves five contenders who today appear to have the message, money, organization and poll numbers to play the long game: neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real-estate magnate Donald Trump, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
What complicates the picture is the GOP’s rule requiring the 28 jurisdictions (states, territories and the District of Columbia) that vote before March 15 to award their delegates proportionally. The exception is South Carolina, whose winner-take-all primary was grandfathered in. Add in the eight states voting on or after March 15 that also award their delegates proportionally, and some 60% of the convention’s likely total of 2,470 will be allotted that way.
Of these delegates awarded on a proportional basis, some states require a candidate to hit a floor—say, 20% or 15% of the vote. Others have lower thresholds or none at all. For example, Iowa’s 30 delegates will be divvied up proportionately with no minimum, meaning candidates win a delegate for each 3.3% of the vote they receive. The upshot is that by mid-March the top three or four candidates may be separated by only a small number of delegates, giving the leader a plurality, not a majority.
Then comes the Ides of March, when winner-take-all contests kick off. On March 15 five states and one territory, awarding 361 delegates, will vote. Of these, 292 will be winner-take-all. This day could play a critical role in culling the field. The four final March contests that follow could cut the contenders to two.
The survivors will move on to scattered contests throughout April and May—the exception being April 26, when five northeastern states vote, with Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates as the big prize. The final primaries will be held June 7, when 294 delegates, all but 21 chosen by winner-take-all, will be at stake. California and New Jersey will dominate that day.
Still, with only around 40% of the delegates chosen in winner-take-all contests, they may be splintered enough that no candidate commands an outright majority. A complicating factor is that roughly 8% of the delegates will arrive at the convention unbound, free to vote for their choice of candidate. The delegates from Wyoming (29), North Dakota (28) and Guam (9) will be officially uncommitted, as will all but 14 of Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates.
Moreover, GOP rules allow for the creation of “superdelegates,” with more than half of state parties exercising the option to make their chairman, national committeewoman and national committeeman automatic delegates. These uncommitted delegates, 210 in all, could be the most fluid force in the convention if no candidate has locked in victory.
It is unlikely that the GOP will reprise 1880, when it took 36 ballots to nominate James A. Garfield, who wasn’t even a candidate when the convention began. But it is possible that the nomination will still be up for grabs when the GOP convention opens on July 18, and that delegates could need more than one ballot to select the party’s candidate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Republicans took three ballots in 1860 to pick a fellow named Lincoln.
Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the 1896 Election Still Matters,” out Nov. 24 from Simon & Schuster.