Lennox: GOP nominee could be picked by territories

Dennis Lennox

The road to the Republican presidential nomination winds through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Eventually, it reaches Michigan, which in 2012 proved pivotal for Mitt Romney.

That has been true in presidential election cycles of the past, but it may not be the case this time around. Especially now with the 2016 field of would-be presidents being the largest in the party's history.

Not only is it likely that each of the big three early-state tussles will be won by different candidates, but a much-overlooked change to the Republican National Committee's rules governing the nomination contest could drag out the process until the national convention.

Under RNC rule 40, a candidate must win a majority of delegates in eight states to be eligible for nomination at the convention in Cleveland.

That requirement may not sound like a big deal. Eight states is not a terribly high threshold.

However, with 17 candidates — Govs. Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker and Chris Christie; business leaders Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump; ex-Govs. Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry; Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon; U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and all-but-declared candidate Gov. John Kasich — it is difficult to see a way for anyone to get a commanding plurality, let alone a majority, in eight states.

This creates a situation where the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — and not Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — decide who becomes the Republican presidential nominee. Territories and states carry equal weight.

With candidates seemingly running into each other at every turn, as evident by Christie and Rubio rooming together in New Hampshire over the Independence Day holiday, a smart presidential hopeful could easily run the table in the territories and pull out three victories elsewhere to take the campaign all the way to the convention.

The rewards of taking to the hustings and rubber-chicken circuit across the territories could outweigh the hassles, especially for a long-shot candidate without the financial means and deep organizational strength to get ahead of the herd on the mainland.

The Northern Mariana Islands will most likely hold its caucus on March 16 with nine delegates up for grabs. If four years ago is any indicator, less than 900 voters will participate.

In other territories, the electorate is often even smaller. About 70 gathered at the Toa Bar & Grill in Nu'uuli for the 2012 American Samoa caucus. Only the primary in Puerto Rico, which had more participation last time around than Iowa's caucus, is a large-scale electoral contest.

Even if several Republican candidates drop out between now and when formal debates begin next month the field of contenders will still be sizable.

RNC rule 40 gives candidates no incentive to drop out. At worst, someone stays in the race long enough to raise his or her profile and influence the party platform.

Or, a lucky candidate will win enough delegates with the help of the territories to maneuver into a position to claim the Republican nomination, or join the ticket as the vice presidential running mate after leveraging his or her delegates to push the establishment favorite over the line.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance writer who has worked on three presidential campaigns.