Party conventions today tend to be well-scripted and controversy-free, a chance for the party to get its message out and introduce its nominee to the country. But a primary which has become increasingly chaotic and unpredictable may be opening the door for a deadlocked or "brokered" convention, with no clear winner as the delegates head to Tampa.
And it could be a disaster for the Republican's chances in November.
It's still considered to be a far-fetched possibility. But it's one that has been creating buzz in Washington as the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney struggles to maintain the front-runner label, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum picks up speed. With four viable candidates battling for delegates, there's still a chance, however remote, that no one will have a majority once the voting stops.
"Santorum's surging in the polls, but his surge pales in comparison to the amount of money that Romney has available to him," says Andrew Langer, president of the Institute for Liberty, a conservative advocacy group. "I think it's entirely possible that no candidate gets above 700 delegates through the primary process," Langer says.
In order to win the nomination, a candidate must have support from 1144 delegates, including delegates awarded from primary victories as well as from 111 "unpledged delegates" who are free to pick whichever candidate they prefer. According to most estimates, Mitt Romney leads the pack with more than 120 delegates, but most of them have yet to be assigned.
Langer predicted that Romney could win big states—where money is most important—while Santorum could continue to rack up delegates in smaller, more conservative states where grassroots support can make a difference. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich still has a chance to win in some southern states, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul can amass delegates by continuing to get strong second and third-place showings.
Without a majority candidate, the convention would be deadlocked—and the rules for what happens next aren't well-defined. At first, delegates are bound to candidates based on the results of the primaries and caucuses, although the rules vary and may be difficult to enforce.
After the first ballot fails to result in a clear winner, the delegates would be free to switch sides, although they may face political pressure to stick with their candidate—or, if that candidate has bowed out, to switch to whomever he is supporting.
"We're kind of pushing the envelope," says Josh Putnam, a professor of political science at Davidson University.
Decades ago, the decisions would be made by party bosses in secret backroom dealings. But those days are finished, and it would now likely be up to the presidential campaigns themselves to sort out the mess.
Would Rick Santorum take a post as Secretary of Education for his delegates? Would Newt Gingrich need a guaranteed spot on the ticket? And what could anyone do to win over Ron Paul's delegates? It's exactly the type of scene which the GOP would hope to avoid this summer. It's also why the parties tightened their party rules after the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention, in which party bickering ignited riots among activists.
And, once the first ballot is cast, it's also possible for a new candidate to emerge. There's nothing in the rules to prevent someone who wasn't a candidate in any of the nominating contests to throw his hat in the ring during the convention—although most political experts view it as highly unlikely.
"Why would any of the four people who have all the chips hand them to anybody else?" says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who said a brokered convention would likely come down to coalitions between existing candidates.