There was a telling exchange on CNBC’s Squawk Box last month that provided the single best bit of insight into the central conflict that will likely embroil the Republicans when they gather in Cleveland in July. Co-anchor Becky Quick suggested to Republican National Committeeman Curly Haugland that there would be deep anger if the leading vote-and-delegate winner—likely to be Donald Trump–were somehow denied the nomination after failing to get the necessary 1,237 delegates on the first ballot.
Haugland calmly responded: “The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here.” But what about the democratic process? Quick asked. Replied Haugland: “Political parties choose their nominees, not the voters.”
True, it used to be that way. But the problem that the GOP establishment faces is that hasn’t been that way since four decades ago, when the modern era of primaries and caucuses really began and voters took the initiative away from the denizens of the smoke-filled room. And now Republican elders who are desperately trying to derail Trump are openly contemplating going back to the old ways, handing the nomination to someone who never spent a day on the campaign trail, never tried to persuade single voter, and was simply delivered the nomination by an arena full of anonymous delegates. Somehow, the establishment thinks, it can instruct all those millions of Republican voters who came out for Trump and Cruz and Kasich to fall in line behind, say, Speaker Paul Ryan.
This is the nostrum being proposed to save the Republican Party. The greater likelihood is that it will blow the party up, triggering everything from brawls over rules and credentials, to post-convention efforts to launch a third party or write in campaign, to guerrilla wars at the state and local level, with primaries and party purges threatening anyone who embraced the “party will decide!” philosophy.
Why the likelihood of such fury? Because the underlying question the Republicans will face in Cleveland is whether one can really turn back the clock. Now that ordinary Republican voters, like Democrats, have experienced decades of real democracy, what will their reaction be if it’s taken away from them? The polls tell us that Republican voters want no part of such a process. Even in Wisconsin, where GOP voters decisively rejected Trump, exit polls indicated that most Republicans want the nominee to be the one with the plurality of votes.
And that feeling is not confined to Wisconsin. A Bloomberg Politics poll in late March found that 63 percent of Republicans polled want the candidate with the most delegates by the time of the convention to win the nomination. Only 33 percent said the delegates should pick the nominee regardless of the count at convention time. And a pro-Trump PAC is running ads on FOX News urging viewers to register that sentiment with their phone calls.
If your idea of a convention has been shaped by history, and by what was once the default method for a political party to choose its candidate, then the view of the GOP elites make perfect sense. It’s this model that RNC Chair Reince Priebus is talking about when he insists over and over, that if someone comes to Cleveland with 1,237, “all of this is put to bed. If it’s not to put to bed, then we’re going to have an open convention and it’s going to be administered properly and we’re going to have a vote. We’re going to have a multi-ballot convention.” By definition (or simple arithmetic), a multi-ballot convention—when delegates are freed to back anyone they like after a first ballot—means a real possibility that someone other than Trump or Cruz could emerge. It’s what Karl Rove was hinting at when he talked of the appeal of “a fresh face” and what the Wall Street Journal editorial page was arguing for explicitly when it wrote on Wednesday:
“The best outcome for Republicans now is that no one gets 1,237 before the convention, leaving it to the delegates to choose a nominee who looks like he might actually be able to win the election.” (Hint: they don’t mean Cruz).
The issue, of course, has been entirely driven by the Trump phenomenon—the idea that this strange figure who’s never held public office and doesn’t seem to care at all about what the party stands for is hijacking it. So party elders think they know better. But in truth they didn’t always do such a great job of picking out presidential timber in the past. In 1920, a time when primaries existed but had no power to bind delegates, California Senator Hiram Johnson, longtime leader of Progressive Republicans, came to Chicago having won seven primaries. His chief foe, General Leonard Wood, had won eight. By contrast, Ohio Senator Warren Harding, who had engaged in no presidential politicking, won only his home state of Ohio (shades of Kasich), and on the first ballot, won only 62 votes.
But after four inconclusive ballots, the convention adjourned, and a clutch of important political leaders gathered in a room—actually a two bedroom suite—in the Blackstone Hotel to sift through the possibilities. Johnson was too much of an insurgent (he’d run as Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-presidential choice in 1912 on the “Bull Moose” ticket.) Gov. Frank Lowden was too conservative. General Wood was entangled in personal and political feuds. Finally, early on Saturday morning, with the air thick with cigar smoke, the gathering came to the conclusion that Ohio political boss Harry Daugherty had foreseen back in February when he told a reporter: “about 11 minutes after two … when 15 or 20 somewhat weary men are sitting around a table, some one of them will say ‘Well, who will we nominate?’ At that decisive time, the friends of Harding will suggest him and can afford go abide by the result.” Harding was, it turned out, the least objectionable candidate—even if he turned into a most objectionable president. Historians dispute whether that gathering was in fact decisive (the support of longtime Republican kingmaker Boies Penrose was crucial). But for 96 years, that room at the Blackstone has stood as that symbol of one kind of convention decision-making that propelled a very dark horse into power.
A different kind of “king making” happened in Chicago 32 years later, at the 1952 Democratic Convention. Once again, a progressive insurgent had taken the primary route: Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver had indeed beaten President Truman in New Hampshire, which may or may not have influence Truman’s decision not to run again). All through Spring and summer, Kefauver won primary after primary, but the party leaders wanted no part of the candidate who’d become famous by holding hearings—televised, no less—that exposed ties between organized crime and big city political machines. Georgia Senator Richard Russell was a Southern segregationist—anathema to a party that four years earlier had finally taken a strong civil rights stand. Averell Harriman was a diplomat with no political experience.
Outgoing President Truman knew who he wanted, In January, he’d invited Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to the White House and urged him to run; but Stevenson declined; but suggested he might be amenable to a “draft movement.” Stevenson “reluctantly” let Chicago political boss Jake Arvey put his name forth. Crucially, Stevenson had wowed delegates with a witty and compelling welcome speech. (“What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us.”) Organized labor signed on. On the first ballot, Kefauver was the front-runner with 340 delegates, with Stevenson and Russell close behind. But the push by Truman, labor, and power brokers like Pittsburgh mayor (and future governor) David Lawrence was too strong, and by the third ballot, Stevenson had prevailed—the last time any presidential ballot went past the first round.
Stevenson was trounced in the general election, as he was again in 1956.
It’s not always an (officially) reluctant candidate whom the power brokers anoint. In 1960, Senator John Kennedy came to the convention knowing that without a first ballot win, his support was likely to erode. He did not however, come armed with hundreds of delegates chosen in primaries. Indeed, the only primary that had mattered was West Virginia. Why? Not because of its delegates, but because Kennedy had to show that a Catholic could win in an overwhelmingly Protestant state, in order to win over skeptical power brokers (one of them, now governor David Lawrence, was convinced one of his co-religionists could not win the presidency). It was during the convention that Daley of Chicago, Flynn and DeSapio of New York, Bailey of Connecticut, and others gave their assent to Kennedy, who won on the first ballot only with the votes of Wyoming—the last delegation to declare.
Did voters pick Kennedy? No, the convention did.
That, of course, was then. When dissident Democrats learned that in in many big states, delegates to the 1968 convention had been chosen long in advance with no public participation, the rules of the road were changed. For better or worse, more and more delegates would be chosen in primaries that committed them to vote in accordance with … the voters’ choices. We have seen no deviation from this since.
What may happen this year, then, is something not seen in well over half a century. If Republican primary and caucus voters have not delivered a decisive verdict, the delegates will find themselves wrestling with a root question: what is the purpose of a convention? If it’s to ratify, then picking a candidate from the sidelines while elbowing aside the two who between them will have won a huge share of votes and delegates seems completely unjustifiable. If the purpose is to deliberate, to resolve what voters have left unresolved, and to weigh as party members who would be the most effective advocate for the party as an institution, then the idea of bringing someone from off the bench seems a lot less heretical.
The question is whether it is feasible at all—if it turns out that voters have other ideas.
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