New Boston Post | April 7, 2016, 14:57 EST
Ted Cruz’s decisive victory in Wisconsin over Donald Trump now makes the possibility of a contested convention, once dismissed as remote by many commentators (myself included), ever more likely.
To clinch the Republican nomination, a candidate must obtain a majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention, the magic 1,237. In order to win outright, Trump now needs 55 percent of the remaining delegates in up coming contests.
But if that does not happen by the time GOP voters cast their last ballots on June 7 — and it seems increasingly likely that it will not — the campaigns will use the period between June 7 (when the primaries end) and July 18 (when the Republican convention opens in Cleveland) to woo uncommitted delegates to their side.
It’s being called the “Let’s Make a Deal primary,” and what happens during that six-week period could determine the outcome of the race. Trump, the consummate deal-maker, could use this time to win over the remaining delegates he needs to seal the deal. Or not. And that’s where things could get really interesting.
At the convention, committed delegates are pledged to particular candidates on the first ballot. But, after that, all bets are off. Delegates can shift allegiances and vote for whomever they choose.
Trump supporters claim that even if the real estate mogul has only a plurality of delegates (more than any other candidate, but not a majority), he is entitled to the nomination. He and his allies have even gone so far as to say that any other outcome would be “stealing” the election.
But if a majority of GOP voters and delegates do not want Trump as their candidate, why should the Republicans automatically select him as their standard bearer? If a majority of delegates choose someone other than Trump, this is not “stealing an election.” This is Donald Trump losing one.
Delegates to the Republican National Convention are perfectly within their rights to nominate a candidate other than Trump, if Trump cannot get to 1237 and someone else can garner a majority on a subsequent ballot. Indeed, second place — even fourth place — finishers have legitimately toppled first place finishers who failed to produce more than a plurality of delegate support. Even when the selection of a dark horse candidate creates dissension within party ranks, history shows that such nominees can go on to win the presidency in the general election.
No less a man than Abraham Lincoln was a second-place finisher. In 1860, New York Sen. William H. Seward came to the convention with more support than any other candidate, but without a majority. Three ballots later, the delegates chose Lincoln to be the party’s nominee. And thank God they did.
This is not just some nineteenth century peculiarity. At the start of the 1952 Republican National Convention, conservative Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft had more delegates than General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet, Eisenhower ended up beating Taft on the first ballot by persuading delegates and party leaders that he had the best chance of beating the Democrats in November.
But, while Cruz supporters might point to the examples of Lincoln and Eisenhower to make their case, Kasich supporters will no doubt point to a nominee from Kasich’s own Buckeye state: Warren G. Harding. In 1920, Harding, then a U.S. senator from Ohio, came to the GOP convention as the fourth place finisher. But on the tenth ballot, a majority of delegates selected Harding as the party’s nominee. Harding went on to crush his Democratic general election opponent (Ohio Gov. James Cox) with 60 percent of the popular vote.
Like Harding, who was not originally the most popular candidate among the party faithful, Kasich could be the Republican’s best hope of winning in November: Kasich is the only GOP candidate still in the race who consistently beats Hillary Clinton in one-on-one surveys. Cruz and Trump both have high unfavorability ratings among general election voters and tend to lose to Clinton in head to head polls.
Personally, I believe that Trump would do much better against Clinton than polls indicate. (Many conservatives have told me that they will hold their noses and vote for Trump rather than endure a Clinton presidency, but that they will lie to pollsters, friends, and neighbors about their vote.) Nevertheless, Harding may be Kasich’s best historical argument for the nomination. And this may be what some GOP leaders are hoping for.
Of course, it is also possible that, if Trump arrives in Cleveland without a majority of delegate support, the delegates could elect what GOP strategist Karl Rove calls a “fresh face,” such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who did not even run for president this year.
“[Ryan]’s the most conservative, least establishment member of the establishment,” one Republican insider told Politico. “That’s what you need to be.”
The Ryan option is not without precedent. In 1880, on the 37th ballot, a majority of Republican delegates nominated James A. Garfield, who had come to the convention to support Treasury Secretary John Sherman. The delegates chose Garfield, an Ohio Congressman recently elected to the U.S. Senate, after Sherman and frontrunners Ulysses S. Grant (the former president) and Maine Sen. James G. Blaine each failed to garner majority support. Garfield went on to become our 20th president (although, sadly, he was assassinated during his first year in office).
In 1940, a majority of GOP delegates again nominated someone who had not run for president in the primaries that year: businessman Wendell Willkie, who was chosen on the 6th ballot, over Sen. Taft (in his first unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination). But in 1940, unlike 1880, the “fresh face” strategy did not achieve electoral success. Willkie went down in crushing defeat to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the general election that fall.
Cruz and Trump supporters say that any attempt to nominate a “fresh face” (or even John Kasich) is doomed, since today Rule 40B requires candidates to have won more than 8 states in order to have their names formally placed in nomination. But Rove and others argue that the rule, enacted last election cycle by Mitt Romney supporters seeking to limit Ron Paul’s influence at the 2012 convention, precludes only formal nominations and floor speeches – it does not, according to Rove, preclude delegates from voting for whomever they please.
Rove may, technically, be correct. But Cruz supporters are also right that, in the era of social media and instant communication, large numbers of Republican primary voters (particularly those who already feel ignored and marginalized by establishment forces) would not stand for this result. Party leaders may have convinced delegates to go rogue in the days before social media and electronic communication enabled instantaneous political protest, but today the chance of convention delegates nominating someone other than Cruz or Trump, let alone someone who did not run, seems impractical (maybe even risky).
At this point, it is unclear what will happen if Trump fails to win the nomination on the first ballot. But through an informal advisor, Roger Stone, Trump has already issued this stunning warning:
“We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in [any attempt to nominate someone other than Trump]. . . [W]e’ll tell you who the culprits are. We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.”
Will delegates be intimidated? Perhaps they already have been. And if Trump obtains the necessary majority by means of threat and intimidation, isn’t he the one who has “stolen” the election?