by John Lawrence
It has been a while since a national party gave its presidential nomination to a candidate who appeared destined for electoral humiliation, but the rambling carnival road show that passes for the Republican Party seems likely to do just that. The consequences for conservatives, both in the Congress and at the state and local level, could be cataclysmic. But, as that quintessential New Yorker, Ralph Kramden, used to say, “And away we go!”
Donald Trump’s triumph in New York – apparently winning all but 3 delegates that went to Ohio Gov. John Kasich – makes his eventual nomination very difficult to derail. Unless he does something extremely unpredictable or stupid – and he has already done so many times with negligible ramifications – Trump seems all but certain to arrive in Cleveland with a majority, or near majority, of the votes needed to secure the nomination.
Most observers will stipulate that if Trump arrives with the majority and secures the nomination, the scenario for the fall is grim, to say the least (though one must note “most observers” have been consistently wrong this year). His negatives, even within the Republican party, let alone among key sectors needed for a successful presidential run, are likely beyond repair; with Trump at the head of the ticket, Hillary Clinton becomes an acceptable alternative for millions of Republican women, business people, and others essential to a Republican candidate’s competitiveness.
At worst, Trump will arrive at the convention with a considerable delegate lead over Sen. Ted Cruz (whose nomination would not fare much different, it is important to note) and other also-rans. True, you either win or you don’t, but there are serious consequences to denying the nomination to a clear front-runner who fell slightly short, particularly Trump whose anti-establishment attacks foreshadow a possible independent run if he is “not treated well.” I am confident that denying him the nomination under such circumstances would fit that definition.
The track record on contested conventions is not especially heartening, which is one reason party leaders exert so much effort to avoid them. According to a Pew study, a Republican candidate who wins a nomination on the first ballot stands a 50% chance of winning the election (as opposed to a 61% chance if winning a first ballot nomination). Successful Republicans who took more than one ballot to secure their nominations include Hays (7), Garfield (36), and Harding (10), while Democratic multi-ballot nominees included Woodrow Wilson (46) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (4). The historical record certainly is clear that the longer the battle goes on (and it is unlikely Trump would yield his delegates easily), the more chances of success plummet either further.
Back in 1940, for example, the Republican convention was a wide-open affair, with many prominent Republicans vying to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. Among the contenders were prominent party players including Sen. Robert A. Taft (OH), Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (MI), Republican House Leader Joseph Martin (MA) and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Barely noticed at 3% earlier in the year was Wall Street-based power company executive, Wendell Wilkie, a strong internationalist and FDR delegate at the 1932 Democratic Convention. (Shades of Trump’s business background and meandering political leanings). It took six ballots for the inexperienced dark horse to prevail amid a chorus of supporters roaring “We Want Wilkie.” But FDR labeled Wilkie as inexperienced and untrustworthy given the international crisis the country was facing. “Better a third termer than a third rater,” FDR’s slogan went; the country agreed, giving Roosevelt a 10 point margin of victory and 449 electoral votes to Wilkie’s 82.
Republicans opened their last uncertain convention in 1976 under chaotic circumstances. The incumbent, Gerald Ford, had never been elected to the presidency or even to the vice presidency, having been appointed to the latter in 1973 upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and elevated to the latter upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford fought continuously with the Democratic Congresses he faced, endorsed legislation that inflamed the rising right wing of his party (including a controversial labor law and negotiations on yielding the Panama Canal) which enthusiastically backed former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Ford and Regan battled throughout the primary season, and the outcome was not clear until the convention opened and Ford narrowly triumphed. But the remaining enmity complicated Ford’s race against the reformer Jimmy Carter, who narrowly ousted the President in November.
The last genuine Democratic free-for-all was in 1912, when contenders included New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, a relative neophyte compared to opponents like House Speaker Champ Clark (MO) and Ways and Means chairman Oscar W. Underwood (AL). Clark secured a majority on the 9th ballot, but convention rules required a two-thirds margin, which dragged out the balloting. When Tammany Hall bosses endorsed the Speaker, reformers in the party pounced. Former three time nominee (and loser) William Jennings Bryan endorsed Wilson, who had consistently run second to Clark, and the balloting seesawed for several ballots until Wilson moved ahead on the 29th and finally won on the 46th. Unlike other multi-ballot victors (James Cox’ 44 ballots in 1920 and John W. Davis’ in 1924 come to mind), Wilson actually was elected president, but possibly only because the Republican vote was split between incumbent William Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. (Wilson received just 41% of the popular vote.)
The last contested Democratic convention was 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson , who had declared he would not be a candidate, faced Senate powerhouses Estes Kefauver (KY), Richard Russell (GA), and Alben Barkley (KY) as well as former Secretary of Commerce and Ambassador Averill Harriman (NY). Stevenson emerged victorious on the third ballot, but was crushed in the fall by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Historical comparisons are entertaining, but one needs to remember that most of these past contests involved nominations and conventions in which crucial decisions were made by the political party and elected leaders, not by primary voters or caucus attendees. Votes could be juggled and manipulated by bosses far more easily than the GOP establishment might be able in Cleveland. Moreover, the losers in most of these races were experienced politicians who remained committed to their party (TR being a notable exception in 1912, and his heresy of running as a 3rd party candidate might well have cost Republicans the White House).
Even in the days of party control of the nominating process, selecting a dark horse nominee after the major contenders had exhausted themselves (and the delegates) does not fare well. John W. Davis received less than 3% of the votes on the first ballot in 1924’s Democratic convention and was not considered a serious possibility for dozens of ballots. Davis won on the 103rd ballot, and was crushed by President Calvin Coolidge. Before Republicans contemplate digging up a fresh face to replace Trump and Cruz, they should recall Davis’ fate. Indeed, the insult would be even worse this year should the party select someone repudiated by voters or not even tested during the primary season.
The track record in modern times is not very favorable for a party divided at the convention, even when there is no multi-ballot fight (see Republicans in 1964 or 1976, or Democrats four years later and in 1980 and 1984). The goal must be to resolve the nomination as early as possible and patch up the bad feelings and wounded egos as long as possible before the gavel comes down, the confetti drops, and the nominee goes out to face his – or her — destiny. Unfortunately for Republicans, after New York, that prospect is increasingly one with orange hair, a confrontational message, and horrific negative ratings.