The Contenders: Why Nobody Wins at a Contested Convention

The Contenders: Why Nobody Wins at a Contested Convention

Why you should care

You say contested, I say brokered; let’s call the whole thing off.

Learn more about Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

There was a lot of talk this election year — in both major American political parties — about the possibility of a brokered convention. Brokered conventions — or “contested” conventions as they should really be called today — typically describe a situation in which no candidate enters his or her party’s nominating convention with enough delegates to win, making a floor fight necessary to secure the nomination.

No such floor fights materialized in the end in 2016, but as OZY illustrates in a new episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, contested conventions have a rich and entertaining history. Even without the smoke-filled backroom deals of history, the past half-century of contested conventions is littered with the corpses of failed coups and attempted rule changes by those seeking to knock election front-runners from their perch. Here are a few of the biggest failed gambits.

Putting Forth a Last-Minute Alternative

The 1964 election should give pause to those contemplating the last-minute entry of a “true Republican” alternative to Trump. Just four weeks before the Republican convention that year, moderate Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton belatedly threw his hat into the ring in an attempt to dethrone conservative Arizona senator and party establishment pariah Barry Goldwater, already well on his way to his party’s nomination. On the eve of the convention, Scranton led Goldwater in national polls, and party moderates hoped that once Goldwater’s extremism was on full display on national television, delegates would flock to Scranton.

But Scranton had started too late to make inroads, and Goldwater’s loyal delegates held as he won 883 votes, to Scranton’s 214, on the first ballot. The last-minute maneuvering to overtake the front-runner, however, helped make the convention one of the ugliest in history, culminating in perhaps the costliest phrase ever uttered at a convention: Goldwater’s defiant pronouncement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Changing the Rules of the Game

There was a lot of chatter about the potential for some anti-Trump rule changes at this year’s GOP convention. Last-minute rule changes, though, can be exceedingly difficult to pull off.

Case in point: the 1976 election, when neither challenger Ronald Reagan nor incumbent president Gerald Ford had secured enough delegates ahead of the GOP convention in Kansas City. Prior to the convention, it looked like Ford — using the power of the presidency to cut some major backroom deals — had landed the support of a majority of delegates, and CBS News and Walter Cronkite were preparing to report that the president had the nomination sewn up.

Reagan’s team knew they had to disrupt that narrative, and fast. And so Reagan took the unprecedented step of naming his running mate, liberal Republican Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, before the convention. Reagan forces also proposed a rule change (nicknamed the “misery loves company amendment”) requiring Ford to name his running mate as well, in the hopes his pick would upset his precarious delegate tally. The proposed rule change “was seen as a test ballot” for the upcoming Reagan-Ford showdown, says Craig Shirley, author of Reagan’s Revolution, and once Ford forces had defeated the rule change by a few dozen votes, they would go on to narrowly beat Reagan on the first ballot as well.

Four years later, Sen. Edward Kennedy, President Jimmy Carter’s rival, sought a rule change to allow delegates to vote as they pleased on the first ballot (his only hope, since Carter had already secured enough delegates for the nomination). But the Carter team controlled the convention schedule and made sure that the “robot rule” vote occurred before Kennedy got a chance to speak. The rule change was shot down, Kennedy withdrew from the race and a damaged Carter prevailed.

Teaming Up With Another Also-Ran

Going into the 1984 Democratic convention, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart trailed front-runner Walter Mondale in delegates, but neither he nor the Rev. Jesse Jackson, with a healthy roster of delegates himself, would concede. In the run-up to the convention, Hart tried to persuade Jackson to combine forces in order to get closer to Mondale’s delegate tally, but Jackson wanted his historic candidacy to end with his name being placed in nomination. So the two campaigns instead targeted about 650 Black and Hispanic delegates pledged to Mondale in an attempt to prevent him from winning on the first ballot. When that too failed, Hart and Jackson both lined up behind Mondale, who cruised to first-ballot victory. “Our convention has made a decision,” Jackson proclaimed at the podium after the ballot. “There is a time to compete, a time to challenge, a time to cooperate.”

Unfortunately, if recent history is any guide, contested conventions, and the contentious party warfare leading up to them, appear to herald “a time to lose,” even for the candidate who secures his party’s nomination. If there’s one common factor underlying contested winners like Goldwater, Ford, Carter and Mondale, it’s a general election beating. In the end, the biggest victor in a contested convention is generally the other party.

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