Imagine the scenario that keeps Mitt Romney's top strategists up at night: The polls close in the final primary state, Utah, on June 26, and Romney gets every one of the state's 40 winner-take-all delegates -- yet still falls short of the 1,144 he needs to secure the Republican presidential nomination at the party's August convention in Tampa.
It's not out of the realm of possibility. Now that Louisiana's primary is over, the process that will result in the elections of more than half the total number of delegates to the national convention has begun. A series of primaries in Southern states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, and North Carolina could provide Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich with enough delegates to deny Romney an outright win.
And yet, if Romney falls just short of the necessary votes, he can turn to an unlikely, if somewhat ironic, source of untapped delegates: The members of the Republican National Committee -- the closest thing the party has to super delegates.
The GOP has always been stingier about awarding convention votes than Democrats. In the 2008 contest, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battled over 4,233 delegates, nearly one in five of whom were unelected delegates. That included every Democratic member of Congress, every Democratic governor, the 432 members of the Democratic National Committee, and the two dozen so-called Distinguished Party Leaders, a list that took in everyone from former presidents to former House speakers and former DNC chairmen.
By contrast, Republicans don't give their elected officials an automatic convention vote. If House Speaker John Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wish to vote at this year's convention, they will have to run to become a delegate just like anyone else. By party rule, only the 168 members of the RNC -- a state party chairman and two national committee members in each of the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia -- get automatic votes, accounting for about 7 percent of the total convention votes.
Not all of those votes are up for grabs. Rules vary by state, and RNC members in 11 states -- Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin -- must vote for the winners of their respective primary or caucus. And representatives from states that held nominating contests before party rules allowed are disqualified from voting, meaning that RNC members from Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, and South Carolina won't have a voice at this year's convention.
With those 48 delegates from 16 states out of the picture, that leaves 120 uncommitted super delegates who may vote for any candidate they wish at the national convention in Tampa. And that means Romney has a path to victory that's wider than it may initially appear.
Start counting at 153, the number of RNC members who have a vote at the convention, whether bound or unbound. So far, Romney's team has done a better job than any other campaign in attracting those delegates. He has support from 41 RNC members -- nine of whom must vote for him and another 32 who have endorsed him but, technically speaking, remain unbound. That includes entire delegations from nine states and territories and prominent RNC members like Indiana's Jim Bopp, Illinois's Pat Brady, Maine's Jan Staples, and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño.
Massachusetts national committee member Ron Kaufman, a top Romney adviser who frequently travels with the candidate, is leading the campaign's effort to win over RNC members. He has help from Michigan national committee member Saul Anuzis, Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour, and Utah's Bruce Hough.
The 41 on Romney's side amount to more than three times the support that Romney's three remaining rivals have attracted, combined. Gingrich has support from seven RNC members, including the three Georgia members bound to vote for him. Santorum has backing from five, including the bound Kansas delegation and Iowa's Kim Lehman, who is influential in the social conservative community. Rep. Ron Paul has the support of just one RNC member, newly elected Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker.
Romney's surrogates have been the "most aggressive," said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead. The other candidates aren't putting in the same effort. Paul's campaign is having staff members call through the RNC roster. Former RNC member Chuck Yob of Michigan, is calling on behalf of Santorum - and Santorum himself called Armistead after the former senator from Pennsylvania won Alabama earlier this month.
Of the 99 remaining unaligned RNC members, 18 come from states that bind their RNC members to a specific candidate. Once the delegate-election process concludes in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin, those 18 members will be locked in, at least on the first ballot.
All of that leaves 81 RNC members who have not yet said how they will vote when the gavel comes down in Tampa. Among the undecided: the entire delegations of Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington state.
If they remain on the sidelines, they will become the targets of intense lobbying from all sides: Establishment Republicans, intent on ending the primary bloodshed and crowning a winner, will push the remaining members to come out publicly for Romney.
"Calls are going very well. Members are concerned about electability and uniting the party," said Anuzis, one of Romney's RNC whips. "Most [members] do not see a contested convention as a good thing."
Santorum and Gingrich supporters, furious that unelected delegates could end the nominating process, will push those members to abstain or to back their candidates, denying Romney a first-ballot win. (Toward the end of the 2008 Democratic fight, some members of the DNC who hadn't committed to a candidate reported receiving hundreds of e-mails and dozens of phone calls a day, almost all from members of the public on Obama's or Clinton's side.)
By remaining on the sidelines, these Republican super delegates ensure that Romney has a path to victory even if he comes up short of the 1,144 delegates an eventual nominee needs to win. His true magic number, that is, is something smaller than what it might initially appear. He has to get close -- at the very minimum, to 1,063 pledged delegates -- if he is to rely on RNC members to get him over the top. That would be a last-ditch, ugly, and controversial move; in 2008, the Obama campaign stopped rolling out super delegates just before it clinched the nomination, in hopes of avoiding the appearance that super delegates had delivered Obama the nomination.
But if Romney falls just short, winning with RNC members remains the proverbial nuclear option. It wouldn't be pretty, but those 81 uncommitted members could be Romney's only path to the 1,144 votes he needs to win on the first ballot.