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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 12/14/2010

Can Michael Steele win?

By Chris Cillizza

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is running for a second term. But can he win? Photo by Melina Mara / The Washington Post

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's decision to seek a second term shocked many in the political world who believed he would step aside after a tumultuous -- to put it kindly -- first two years in the job.

But, as the feeling of surprise wears off, one central question remains: Can Steele actually win?

The short answer, based on conversations with a number of Republican strategists who closely follow the inner workings of the RNC, is probably not.

"He doesn't have a path to victory, it's more of an extremely steep, technical climb filled with a variety of obstacles," explained one seasoned GOP observer who is not affiliated with any of the candidates for the chairmanship.

Here's why Steele's path is so steep.

In the most optimistic assessments of his current strength among the 168 members of the RNC, Steele has 40 hard supporters. That's a little less than half of the 85 people he would need to win a second term.

A look back at the voting in the 2009 chairman's race suggests that Steele's initial base of support simply isn't big enough.

In that race, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan came into the contest as the ostensible frontrunner. (On the day before the last RNC race, we estimated Duncan's support on the first ballot was somewhere between 48 and 60 votes.)

On the first ballot, Duncan wound up with 52 votes, which put him in first place but well short of a majority. On the second ballot, he dropped to 48 votes. By the third ballot he was at 44 votes. Duncan dropped out before the fourth ballot was held.

"[Steele] is a weaker verson of Mike Duncan," said one GOP operative who is intimately familiar with the RNC voting process but not working for any of the contenders. "After the first ballot, he will get fewer votes."

The problem for Steele is the problem for any incumbent; if people are not with you now, why would they be with you on the day of the vote? Most strategists believe that unless Steele can grow his first-ballot vote into the high 50s or low 60s between now and the Jan. 14, it's next to impossible for him to maintain the required momentum to push himself over the top.

The RNC balloting process, too, works against Steele.

All of the candidates -- there are six currently running including the incumbent -- appear on the first ballot. What follows is a series of ballots with the lowest vote getter often dropping off after each one until there is a one on one choice for the chairmanship. (A drop-out by the lowest vote-getter isn't required but is what typically happens.)

Even if Steele can last until a final showdown -- and it's not yet clear whether he can or not -- the process willlikely allow all of those who want anyone other than the current incumbent to avoid splitting their votes and handing him a fractured victory.

As we have written many times before, handicapping a race decided by 168 people -- many of whom are operating almost entirely out of self interest -- is a tricky business.

But, Steele clearly starts from a position of relative weakness in the race. He has a committed group of supporters -- 30? 40? -- but no obvious plan by which to convince those undecided RNC members why they should vote for him.

(For what it's worth, the argument Steele seemed to be putting forward last night in an interview with Greta Van Susteren was that he is in better touch with the grassroots of the party than the other candidates. "I'm much more of a street guy," Steele said. "I love hanging out in boardrooms, but I prefer to be in neighborhoods and communities.")

Steele's best -- and maybe only -- chance is to hope he can make it into the final round of balloting and face off against someone (or several someones) who the members either won't rally around or who each get enough votes to splinter the anti-Steele vote.

Can Steele pull off a victory? In politics -- as we learned last election -- anything is possible. But, a Steele win would rightly be understood as a major upset given the forces aligned against him.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 14, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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