TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Steele, the former Republican national chairman who oversaw the writing of the party's nominating rules in 2010, told The Huffington Post Saturday night that the chances of an open -- that is, undecided -- GOP convention in Florida next August are now "50-50" after Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina.
"It's a real possibility," Steele told HuffPost. "Right now I'd say it's 50-50. The base wants its chance to have their say. They aren't going to want it to end early, before they get their chance, which means that the process could go all the way to Tampa."
And if it does, Steele says, the result will not be an unpalatable anti-democratic display of insider deal-making, but rather an advertisement for the ideological and grassroots input of the party.
"You would see the people who had the influence to begin with -- the Tea Party, the social conservatives, you name it, hashing it out right in front of us all. I think that is good."
There hasn't been an "open" or "brokered" convention since 1976, when President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan each went to the convention in Kansas City without a majority of the delegates in hand. In one of the most celebrated moments in modern GOP history, the Mississippi delegation -- managed by a young operative named Haley Barbour -- chose to vote for Ford, even though most of the delegation was committed, in spirit if not in law, to Reagan.
There would be a kind of historical symmetry to another open convention this year, this time in Tampa. The 1976 episode fired the Reagan forces for 1980, when he swept to power and swept out President Jimmy Carter. It was the dawn of the Reagan Era, in which the Gipper was able to tie together the three constituent parts of the conservative moment -- fiscal (libertarian), social (anti-abortion) and hawk (Panama Canal, communism).
Thirty years later that coalition has fallen apart, and fallen into war with each other. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) represents the libertarian purists; former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) the social purists; and Newt Gingrich, Romney and Santorum all vie for the hawk part of the triad, while Paul tries to undercut the others.
Former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) constantly invokes Reagan on the campaign trail, but he has none of the charm or winsome personality that allowed Reagan to be the master of all factions. Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney have money and machinery, but neither of them can be Reagan, either.
Besides lacking a Reagan, this year also has new rules and calendars, both of which were deliberately designed to stretch out the process -- though not necessarily in the cause of creating an open convention.
"We wanted to make sure everyone got their chance to be heard," Steele said. "And if that means it goes all the way to the convention, that's the way it will be."
The campaigns have been focused for months on detail: which states are winner-take-all, which choose proportionately. And there is one other wrinkle: "superdelegates," chosen mostly at state conventions later this year. They could hold the key -- and they would in fact more likely be state officials and politicians who more closely resemble old-time polls.
But there will be no smoke-filled room; there's no smoking in the convention center here.