“Q: Where do the elephants go when they die? A: To Cleveland.”
– From “The Making of the President” by Theodore White, 1964
The results of March 15 make it possible that no Republican candidate will win a majority of delegates at the end of the primaries, perhaps leading to a deal between two of the leading candidates or even – and the TV ratings would soar if this happened – the convention in Cleveland drafting a new candidate who hadn’t run in the primaries. Journalists wrote about the fabled “smoke-filled” rooms at the 1920 Republican National Convention that chose Warren Harding on the 10th ballot. Who knows what might happen in the air-conditioned rooms on the shores of Lake Erie this summer?
The 2016 Republican contest has settled into stable patterns: Donald Trump has a steady base of about 40 percent in primaries, but a little less in caucuses, mainly from older white males. Sen. Ted Cruz does well with voters who identify as “very conservative” and in low-turnout caucuses, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the departed Sen. Marco Rubio have won the more moderate Republicans. For a contested convention to occur, Kasich will have to win Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Indiana while Cruz will have to do better out West.
Back in the 1980s, David Broder, then the dean of the Washington press corps, wrote that brokered conventions were obsolete due to three factors: 1.) the major networks would cover only two candidates; which led to 2.) declining polls for the others; which led to 3.) an inability to raise money to stay in the race. Now all three of those factors no longer apply. Cable networks and social media can give plenty of attention to all candidates, thus allowing them to maintain some polling support. And super PACs have made available an almost unlimited supply of funds.
According to CNN, Trump is roughly 270 delegates ahead of Cruz. Trump’s lead in the delegate hunt is almost solely due to his 99-delegate victory in Florida’s winner-take-all primary – plus the rest of the Deep South. Can Trump reach the magic number of 1,237 delegates by July? Given his early edge, it will be virtually impossible for either Cruz or Kasich to catch him. Therefore, the GOP establishment’s only chance to beat Trump is to make sure he doesn’t win a majority before the convention opens. After the March 22 results, the delegates won by Cruz, Kasich and Rubio roughly equal Trump’s total. Trump is benefiting from the oldest political rule: “Happiness is a divided opposition.”
In 1964, when the Republican establishment unsuccessfully tried to stop Barry Goldwater, White dubbed it “the dance of the elephants.” We’ll see the sequel this year. There can be no doubt the Republican establishment wants to stop Trump. Mitt Romney called him “a fraud,” National Review devoted an entire issue to attacking him, George Will likened him to Mussolini and the Wall Street Journal delivered the ultimate Republican insult, comparing him to Barack Obama.
After more than 30 contests, Trump has nearly 60 percent of those needed for a majority. But roughly 65 percent of all delegates have been chosen. Trump would have to win nearly 52 percent of the remaining delegates to reach 1,237, a difficult task in a three-way race. Trump can only do so if he carries the winner-take-all and winner-take most states like California, New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin. CNN is projecting Trump will fall short by the end of the primaries in June. The New York Times, on the other hand, is predicting that Trump will make it.
In a normal year, the chances of a “brokered” convention that chooses a new nominee would be virtually none. But this year is anything but normal because of the scattered results and the fact that all three remaining Republicans have a loyal base in the party.
Karl Rove, former campaign manager for George W. Bush, is predicting the first multiballot Republican convention since 1948: “Delegates will be fractured – with many legally bound, for at least one ballot, to support the winner of their state or district – and at least two ballots will be required. But the candidates with the most delegates going in will win.”
Hubert Humphrey in 1968 was the last nominee of either major party chosen without winning a single primary. In angry protest, the followers of his intraparty challengers got in an ugly televised brawl with the Chicago police, pretty much dooming Humphrey in the fall. In the aftermath, a commission to “reform” the nomination process, chaired by George McGovern, designed a new process that would take away power previously held by party “bosses” and give it to rank-and-file voters. The new system was deliberately crafted to ensure that primaries, not conventions, would choose nominees.
And that is the way it has worked out in both parties since 1970 – whoever won the most delegates during the primary season has been nominated.
In the past, when conventions were “brokered,” it was due to three factors: 1.) a two-thirds vote was required; 2.) there were at least three candidates with strong regional or ideological bases; and 3.) the top two or three candidates were unable to make a deal on the ticket. Perhaps the most famous convention deadlock was the 1924 Democratic conclave in New York City that took 103 ballots (and over 10 days), eventually choosing an obscure former West Virginia congressman, John Davis, who lost badly. The last time a Republican convention picked a nominee who hadn’t run in any primary was 1940, with Wendell Willkie, and the last time a Republican nomination took more than one ballot was in 1948.
The Democrats’ two-thirds rule was eliminated after 1932. But the second factor is definitely operating so far in the GOP contest this year. One sure sign of a contested convention would be Kasich victories in the spring Midwestern primaries. Were Kasich to win in those states and combined with Rubio’s 166 delegates, Trump would be mathematically blocked from a majority.
If Kasich can win some Midwestern states and Cruz can follow up on his Utah victory in some other Western states like Washington, New Mexico and Montana, we could see a very hot time on the waterfront in Cleveland. Who knows what might happen if Trump is blocked on the first ballot?
What would then almost surely happen is a political version of a “shotgun wedding” where the leader (probably Trump) would then offer the vice presidential nomination to Kasich. That has certainly happened before: Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all made also-rans their running mates. An even wilder scenario could occur if the combined delegates of Cruz, Kasich and Rubio reached a majority. How about a ticket of Cruz and Kasich?
What are the chances of all this coming to pass? Not very high. Trump should run up big wins in coastal states like New York, New Jersey and California. On that basis, and due to Cruz and Kasich splitting his opposition, Trump still is the odds-on favorite to grind out a long-term victory. Trump should win his home turf of New York and New Jersey easily. But if Kasich can win the remaining Midwestern states and Cruz the remaining Rocky Mountain states, and the expected Trump margins are lessened in California and Pennsylvania, that could ensure the 2016 GOP race goes all the way to Cleveland. It should be fun for us political junkies. All eyes are now on Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and California.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California and co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on “21st Century America,” which will be published after the election.