There are three ways the Republican National Convention could go if Donald Trump isn’t able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination outright. The first is a compromise with either Trump or Ted Cruz agreeing to support the other, if there’s no way the other can get the nomination at a contested convention. The second is chaos and claims of a corrupt bargain, if one of the two wins the nomination at the convention without the blessing of the other. The third is having a completely different candidate end up taking the mantle. All of these have happened at different times during America’s history and almost all of them happened to the American Right.
The most recent example of a “compromise” happening is the 1976 race between Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Gerald Ford. Reagan was just behind Ford in the delegate count going into the RNC convention, so the fight started on delegates who weren’t committed to one candidate or the other (this is why the Colorado GOP Convention is going to be really interesting). Carl P. Leubsdorf writes in The Dallas Morning News how Ford ended up coming up on top in 1976.
A third battlefield could be the convention preliminaries, where such battles have often been fought out in the Rules and Credentials Committees. Anti-Trump forces are working to elect their allies to those positions. In a closely divided convention, they might target the rule requiring a first ballot vote for the primary or caucus winner, in hopes of reducing Trump’s total.
In 1976, Reagan’s campaign tried various strategies, none successful. He named a running mate, moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Dick Schweiker, and proposed a rule requiring Ford to follow suit, hoping to split the president’s coalition.
But that failed when the closely divided Mississippi delegation agreed to vote as a bloc against the proposed rule. Ford won on the first ballot, 1187-1070.
What might be interesting is if either Cruz or Trump decide to take this strategy at the RNC. It won’t be against the law by then because all the primary contests would be over. So Trump or Cruz can announce a unity ticket of some kind (Trump/Kasich/Carson/?? or Cruz/Rubio/Kasich/Haley/??) in hopes of breaking apart support from the other side. If it doesn’t happen, then Cruz or Trump can announce they’ll support the other and go on from there. This just depends on how close the race is and whether the other thinks they’ll be able to win.
The chaos and corrupt bargain situation has happened at least twice in U.S. history. The first was the 1824 presidential election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, while the second happened during the 1968 Democratic convention. The 1968 chaos happened because Eugene McCarthy had a majority of the popular vote, but Democratic Party power brokers (Todd Gitlin wrote it was LBJ and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley) were able to get Vice President Hubert Humphrey the nomination through the committed delegate process. This is why state election laws ended up being changed to emphasis primaries over caucuses, and the notion of pledged delegates. One thing The New York Times noted this week was how some Republican delegates can switch their votes after the first ballot or two. So it’s possible this could repeat in 2016.
The 1824 presidential election is more interesting because it led to the “corrupt bargain” claims by Jackson and his supporters. Jackson actually had more electoral and popular votes than Adams, but not enough to secure the nomination outright. The race went to the House of Representatives where fourth place finisher Henry Clay (who was also Speaker of the House) threw his support behind Adams. Jackson went nuts, and ended up winning four years later on that voters anger. This means Marco Rubio could eventually throw his lot in with Cruz (even though he says he’s not) and send his delegates into the Cruz camp and the nomination. If Trump really is serious about becoming president, then he could use that situation to his advantage and hope the anger would get him the White House in 2020. There are plenty of variables to this equation: who the president is, how the country is doing, are people still angry, and what opposing candidates are there. This could cause Trump to avoid 2020 all together, but we’ll have to see.
The last example of a complete different nominee has been floated by several people, including Karl Rove. AP seems to think this means Mitt Romney although there are theories suggesting this means Paul Ryan. This has only happened once in American history: the 1880 Republican National Convention. The GOP ended up going through 36 ballots before eventually picking James Garfield as nominee. The amusing thing…Garfield didn’t want to be president. He spoke in favor of Ohio Senator John Sherman, but it was so well-received Garfield started getting votes to become president. Garfield eventually got the support of frontrunners Sherman and James Blaine and the nomination. The only way that could happen this year is if neither Trump or Cruz get the nomination in the first four ballots. This could be why Rubio hasn’t released his delegates and why Kasich is still in the race. It’s a risky strategy to take, but if things are that chaotic it might be worth it. We’ll just have to see.
It’s pretty interesting looking at the history of contested conventions and how they might turn out. It’s pure speculation, but it’s still fun to do. This has been one of the crazier election cycles most people have ever seen, and I think a lot of people are holding their breath to see what happens. The bigger question is just how angry will voters be if “their guy” isn’t picked? Will Trump or Cruz supporters decide to stay home if one of them aren’t on the ticket? Or will voters stay loyal to the GOP to keep the Democrats from retaining the White House? It’ll be interesting to see, that’s for sure.