With the chaos of the GOP presidential race seeming to pick up speed every week, a previously remote and barely considered scenario has started to come into focus: a possible contested GOP convention where the delegate leader (most likely Donald Trump) might not be the party’s ultimate chosen nominee.
Is this possible? Is there a precedent for it? In both cases, the answer is yes.
In fact, you don’t have to go back that far in GOP history to the last time when a nominee wasn’t decided before the national convention.
In 1976, incumbent President Gerald Ford faced off against California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had challenged Ford as not being conservative enough on many issues such as foreign policy.
Under modern GOP convention rules, a candidate must amass a majority (in 1976, the number was 1,130) of delegates to be the party’s outright nominee. If this doesn’t occur prior to the convention, then delegates vote at the convention — and keep voting until the number is achieved by one candidate.
In 1976, Ford did not receive the 1,130 number before the convention, and it looked like Reagan might unseat him. However, at the convention, Reagan made the mistake of announcing his pick for vice president before the first ballot was cast. This backfired, and Ford received 1180 votes to Reagan’s 1069. Ford was the party’s nominee, and he went on to lose the general election to Jimmy Carter.
A true “contested” convention occurs when a candidate doesn’t receive the majority of votes on the first ballot at the convention. After the initial ballot, all regular state delegates are able to vote for candidates other than to whom they were originally pledged.
Deals are struck, alliances are formed and new ballots are held until one candidate receives the magic number of votes to be declared the nominee.
For the Republicans, this last happened in 1948 when it took three ballots to declare Thomas Dewey, then Governor of New York, the party’s nominee (he lost to Harry Truman, despite infamously being declared the winner in the press on the night of the election).
The 1948 GOP convention was a relatively mild version of a contested convention. A much wilder variant occurred in 1924 on the Democratic side when it took an astounding 103 ballots to finally declare former West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis the nominee.
This may have been due to a Democratic convention rule at the time that a candidate needed a two-thirds majority vote to be declared the nominee. Neither of the party’s favored candidates, former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo nor New York Governor Alfred Smith, secured enough votes in early balloting to win such a majority.
On the first ballot, Davis had come in seventh, with a paltry 2.8 percent of the vote, compared to McAdoo’s 39.4 percent and Smith’s 22 percent (it should be noted there was a total of 19 candidates who received votes in the first ballot).
By the 13th ballot, Davis had doubled his share of the vote to secure third place, and by the hundredth ballot he had moved up to second, with McAdoo in third place.
Throughout all the voting, many party delegates switched sides and traded favors, and for a brief period, it looked like Indiana Senator Samuel Ralston might take the nomination. But at the last moment, he withdrew from the contest, leaving Davis as the preferred compromise candidate.
In the end, both McAdoo and Smith agreed or were persuaded to withdraw together in favor of Davis, as most party members were convinced neither could secure the two-thirds majority necessary for balloting to end. As a dark horse candidate, Davis then lost to incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge.
The Democrats changed their two-thirds rule to a simple majority in 1936, although this wasn’t enough to prevent a contested convention again in 1952. In that year, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson was nominated, despite not running in the primary season (he wished to run again for governor).
The winner of the primaries, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, had angered Democratic President Harry Truman and other party leaders with televised hearings into organized crime connections to Democratic party machine politics. When Kefauver hadn’t secured enough delegates coming into the convention, Truman and other insiders drafted Stevenson for the nomination after a rousing welcome speech Stevenson gave stirred many party members.
So it’s worth noting that a precedent exists for a nominee being chosen who either did not do well in the primaries or who did not run in them at all.
In 2016, it appears as if the only possible choices for the nomination would be Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. This is not due to the current likelihood of the other remaining candidates to drop out of the race; actually, this is due to a GOP convention rule that was implemented in the wake of Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012 that says that a candidate can only be eligible for the convention nomination’s first ballot (along with floor speeches and demonstrations) if he or she won the primaries or caucuses in at least 8 states or U.S. territories.
All votes for any other candidate are not even counted in the ballot. Some say this was to prevent even a possibility of libertarian candidate Ron Paul getting any press attention at the convention.
The party’s convention rules were changed to solidify Mitt Romney’s nomination, eliminating even the consideration of votes for non-establishment Republicans. The addition of this rule upset large numbers of delegates who wanted to have their votes counted because they needed to be cast according to state laws and state party rules. There was a commotion on the convention floor and a lingering bitterness afterward that some say hurt Romney and may have contributed to his loss in the later general election.
At the moment of this writing, this rule likely means only Trump and Cruz would be eligible for the first ballot at the Cleveland GOP convention in July.
According to another rule implemented at the same time as the eight-state rule above, only eight-state-or-more winners are eligible not just on the first ballot, but on all ballots held at the convention.
This means that currently, establishment ideas of nominating another candidate who is not Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are impossible under the rules as they presently exist.
These new rules — which were designed to benefit an overwhelming majority candidate such as Romney — would have to change prior to the convention if an “anyone-but-Trump-or-Cruz” movement wanted to have a shot at nominating someone who wasn’t Cruz or Trump. Would this happen? Word is that it’s already being discussed.