Phew. Those 20 debates felt like they’d never end. Now that they’re over, however, the Republican Party isn’t particularly close to selecting its presidential nominee.

Given the distractions caused by the candidates’ many gaffes and their stunning assertions, it’s hard to notice that the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination may become the most unpredictable for either major party since the GOP settled on Barry Goldwater in 1964. And most voters probably don’t realize that it looks like three heavily funded candidates will be on the ballot in November.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have each won at least one primary. Ron Paul came close to winning Maine’s non-binding caucus. So, it’s no longer OK, as Santorum might say, to treat Romney as the frontrunner. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Googled is ahead of Romney in at least one national poll and essentially tied with him in another.

Most voters probably presume that Romney will ultimately claim the nomination. That’s why the formerly moderate former Massachusetts governor won the reactionary American Conservative Union’s straw poll at CPAC. Meanwhile, national opinion polls indicate that Obama would beat Romney or Santorum in a two-way contest.

One growing possibility is a brokered convention, where the delegates themselves would pick a different nominee. America hasn’t had one since 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson clinched the Democratic nomination primarily because he gave a great speech. If by August polls still point to a loss for the GOP frontrunner in November, this could happen at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Brokering would make political junkies, who get bored by conventions that are really just coronations, very pleased.

If this happens, the party’s brass would choose a new candidate they deem capable of beating Obama. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would be the most popular options, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University. But none of them seems any more viable than Romney or Santorum, so don’t be surprised if someone else gets on the ballot. But since the same poll found that more Republican and Republican-leaning voters oppose the brokered option than support it, that kind of maneuver could prove costly for the party.

Meanwhile, those Super PACs unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling are spending unprecedented sums of money, which will ensure that campaign 2012 remains volatile until Election Day. Plus, thanks to a wave of vote-suppressing legislative gimmickry across the country, it’s quite likely that Obama will lose out on votes that he would otherwise win.

Then there’s Americans Elect, an initiative bankrolled by big hedge-fund money. It’s spending more than $22 million to get its own yet-to-be-named candidate on the ballot across the nation. This undemocratic scheme is canvassing voters via the Internet but reserving the right to pick its own winner if the moneybags behind it reject the people’s choice.

Despite not being a real political party, Americans Elect is already on the ballot in 14 states. Only time will tell who will run on that ticket and whether this candidate will help or hinder Barack Obama. Or the Republican nominee. Whoever that’s going to be.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.

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