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GOP Can Prepare for Open Convention by Studying 1976

Kansas City gathering was nasty and filled with temptations

President Gerald Ford, shakes hands with nomination foe Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the 1976 Republican National Convention.
President Gerald Ford, shakes hands with nomination foe Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the 1976 Republican National Convention.

Flash back to the 1976 Republican National Convention at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. — the last time a major party held a convention without knowing whom the nominee would be. That year, incumbent President Gerald Ford bested Ronald Reagan on the first ballot.  

Times have changed, but this is our most recent model. What lessons could we learn from ’76 in the event of another open convention?

Lesson 1


It could get nasty. Donald Trump has hinted that there could be rioting in Cleveland if he’s denied the nomination, but he has tempered that by saying he hopes things don’t turn violent. The reality is that some degree of physicality is probably predictable, even before the results are in.  

Nobody thinks of the 1976 convention as being particularly violent (it was certainly nothing compared to the Democrats’ 1968 convention) but according to Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, “Shoving and shouting matches between Ford’s forces and Reagan’s renegades were not uncommon, and the vice president of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller, was involved in a melee on the floor of the convention over a torn sign and a ripped-out telephone.”  

Imagine how that would play in the modern media world. Today, such fisticuffs would likely be documented by TV cameras and smart phones, shown ad nauseam on a cable TV loop, and posted on Drudge.

Lesson 2


Temptations abound. We’re still months away from a possible contested convention, but a Trump surrogate has already accused the Ted Cruz campaign of “bribing” delegates — something that if true, might actually not be illegal.  

If history is a guide, some indecent proposals will be made if Donald Trump arrives in Cleveland without the needed 1,237 delegates.  

Ford delegate wrangler James Baker reported in his autobiography that he turned down (and documented) “seventeen questionable contacts with delegates with their hands out.”  

But both sides had to resist temptation. According to Shirley’s “Rendezvous with Destiny,” one Illinois delegate offered his vote if Reagan could arrange for $250,000 in business. Reagan and aide David Keene stormed out of the meeting.  

Of course, there’s a fine line between buying delegates and courting them. Both the Ford and Reagan campaigns probably blurred these lines.  

Ford used the perks of his office to entice the 150 or so swing delegates — who were increasingly becoming less impressed by said perks. One old joke has it that Ford offered a delegate the chance to attend a state dinner with the Queen of England, only to hear the delegate respond, “What’s for dinner?”  

In this milieu, temptation is ripe for a power broker to emerge as a sort of Benedict Arnold — as Clarke Reed, a leader of the Mississippi delegation, did when he was persuaded to swing his 30 delegates from Reagan to Ford.  

And with stakes that high, you can expect both carrots and sticks to be used to woo uncommitted delegates — and to keep pledged delegates onboard. In his memoir, Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger recounted that he instructed delegate wranglers to be aggressive on the floor of the convention. When “an old-line Reaganite from San Mateo, called out, ‘What should our demeanor be?’” Nofziger famously quipped: “Da meaner da better.”

Lesson 3


Expect a Hail Mary. One idea might be for a candidate to broaden his appeal by selecting a running mate ahead of the convention. (I’ve argued that Cruz should do this.)  

Reagan did just this in 1976 when he selected moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, who until his selection was a Ford delegate. This move reeked of desperation. Yet it worked. Sort of. The long-term goal of swinging “unbound” Pennsylvania delegates failed utterly. But the news accomplished the immediate goal of killing an emerging media narrative that Ford had secured enough delegates to have the nomination in the bag (a story that posed an existential threat to the Reagan campaign).  

By selecting a squishy moderate, however, Reagan upset conservative loyalists. Big time. In his memoir, “A Different Drummer,” Reagan aide Mike Deaver recalled one delegate personally telling Reagan: “I would rather my doctor told me my wife had a dose of the clap,” than to hear that The Gipper had selected Schweiker.  

Facing mounting pressure, Reagan was urged to drop his running mate, but he chose loyalty over political expediency — a decision that might have cost him some delegates, but earned our respect.  

The 1976 RNC was the first time in history that a non-incumbent candidate for president named his running mate ahead of the presidency, and the lesson might be enough to persuade modern candidates that the risks for employing this particular maneuver outweigh the rewards.  

Still, expect someone to try to find a creative way to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Lesson 4


Don’t believe everything you hear. Candidates and media outlets will surely try to keep a running tally of the delegate count, but take it with a grain of salt for a couple reasons. First, there are perverse incentives for remaining officially neutral, even if you’re not. “Uncommitted” delegates immediately become less sexy the minute they commit to one candidate or another. Second, political operatives lie and spin or, at least, are prone to drinking the Kool-Aid.  

According to James Baker’s book, as late as July 19, 1976, John Sears was predicting that Reagan would come to the convention with 10 more delegates than needed. That obviously didn’t happen.

Lesson 5


Remember, it’s a long ball game. Whoever loses will probably assume the convention was “stolen,” as did some Reagan aides and loyalists. But the loser also must realize that people remember the way you end your campaign, so it should be done with style and grace.  

After Ford won the nomination, he beckoned Reagan to come to the stage (some believe this was in order to embarrass the unprepared candidate). But The Gipper delivered a stemwinder that had the crowd wondering if they had just made the wrong choice. Four years later, he would be the president.  

If he’s smart, Ted Cruz will pay attention to this particular lesson.  

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at the Daily Caller and the author of “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter at @mattklewis.

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