The Unfamiliar Ground of a Contested Convention

It was the most consequential presidential convention ever, resulting in the dramatic choice of an outsider. Though a newcomer to the national stage of politics, his nomination was finally secured after a midnight deal in the proverbial smoke-filled hotel room only a few hours before the balloting began. Cries that the nomination had been stolen were quick to come leaving, some to feel disenfranchised.

You may be quick to think the preceding prophetically describes what will happen should Donald Trump be denied the Republican nomination and perhaps you are right. However, that late night deal was ironed out by the campaign manager of a little-known lawyer from Illinois. You may know his name – Abraham Lincoln.

A scenario where even the possibility of a contested convention has not occurred for the Republican Convention since 1976. Since well over half of today’s registered voters were not even eligible to vote when Ronald Reagan pushed Gerald Ford to the limits, it is no wonder that so many today consider such a contested convention undemocratic. After all, shouldn’t whoever wins the popular vote be the automatic nominee? It might be good to remember that Al Gore would have been our president for at least four years were that so.

Trump supporters go so far as to claim current rules that make a contested convention possible if not probable were instituted specifically to deny him his rightful place as the Republican candidate for president.

Perhaps the most powerful force working against the stop-Trump movement is the widely-accepted norm of democratic legitimacy awarded to the leading candidate in an electoral competition. Even the recipient of a mere plurality can claim to be the people’s choice, at least in comparison to any other single individual, and Trump, as a near-certainty to place first in the delegate count, will surely do so with no little vehemence,” David A. Hopkins, Boston College political scientist.

Supporters of Ted Cruz, the next closest in the race, point out that all the state party rules being questioned today were in place months and even years ago. Add to that the number of states that have winner-take-all primaries, open primaries where anyone can vote, caucuses, and differing rules for which delegates are bound when, and the picture is not so clear-cut as some might imagine.

Cruz says that he is also against a brokered convention, but not a contested convention. That would mean delegates lining up behind a leading candidate regardless how many rounds of voting it takes. He sees a brokered convention as exactly what occurred with Lincoln in 1860.

I think it would be absolutely catastrophic to have a brokered convention where they try to parachute in some D.C. establishment candidate. You would see an open revolt.” – Ted Cruz

By that definition, the last brokered Republican convention was in 1948 when Thomas Dewey was chosen on the third round of balloting. The last contested convention came in 1976 when the incumbent, Gerald Ford, was challenged by Ronald Reagan.

Why have conventions anyway? The ‘76 Republican Convention may well have marked the end of an era in national politics. Prior to 24/7 news and social media, most candidates weren’t well-known outside their own states or regions. The only way to hope to have a candidate who represented the platform of the party or even to solidify that platform came by way of hashing it out in back rooms or extended rounds of delegate votes.

The national convention of today has become little more than an extended commercial which less and less outside the party faithful pay attention to. At the same time, each state convention has the right to set its own rules as it sees fit. The cattle rancher from northern Colorado is far from a party insider and it is only in state conventions that kind of delegate has a voice.

Six of the GOP’s ten brokered conventions produced a nominee who went on to become president. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, contested or brokered conventions hold a better record of producing a winning candidate our modern system of choosing nominees. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so afraid of possibility. What must be avoided, however, is the introduction of a nominee that was unwilling to withstand the scrutiny of Republican voters. That would guarantee Clinton the White House.

~American Liberty Report