It has been a very long time since either of the national conventions of the two major political parties has served any function other than televised pep rally. In most presidential election years, state primaries and caucuses function to elect a sufficient number of delegates such that one candidate arrives at the convention as the presumptive nominee.
The last time the GOP arrived at its convention without a candidate having sewn it up was 1976. Ronald Reagan mounted an insurgency that gave sitting president Gerald Ford considerable heartburn. In the end, however, Ford was nominated on the first ballot.
Had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated in June 1968 prior to the Democratic National Convention in August, the convention would almost certainly have been contested. Though Hubert Humphrey did not participate in a single primary, he had he largest number of delegates but not a sufficiently large number as to have a majority. With Kennedy gone, however, Humphrey was able to defeat Eugene McCarthy for the nomination on the first ballot. (What is remembered about that convention is the anti-war chaos and violence that raged outside the convention venue on the streets of Chicago.)
Ted Cruz’s easy victory over Donald Trump last night in Wisconsin sets the table in such a way as to remind us that the party conventions are technically called ‘nominating conventions.’ The conventions exist so that delegates can finish the job of selecting a nominee if the voters don’t.
There is now the very strong possibility that the voters – by failing to give any single Republican candidate the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination – will instead give GOP convention delegates something to do in Cleveland other than dress funny and go to parties.
As primary season winds down we begin to see the flaws in the Donald Trump free media-driven celebrity campaign. As he enjoyed early successes, many thought that he would assemble state-level organizations. He didn’t. It was expected that he would gather together a credible team of policy advisors. He hasn’t. By this point – indeed well before this point in presidential campaigns – candidates develop thoughtful policy positions. Trump is still ad libbing.
Add this together with the fact that Trump’s inexperience as a political candidate has led to several unforced errors in the past two weeks – his handling of Chris Matthew’s idiotic question concerning abortion being one of them – and it starts to become significant that nearly two-thirds of GOP primary voters have so far voted for someone other than Donald Trump.
That proportion is significant. Trump is the only candidate with a practical chance of gaining the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination. He would need 64 percent of the remaining delegates – the approximate reciprocal of the proportion of the popular vote that he has garnered so far. (Ted Cruz would need 94 percent – mathematically possible but not possible in any practical sense.)
Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus said – correctly – that the party picks the nominee. That the party has done so for most of our lifetimes via state primary elections rather than at a nominating convention does not diminish the fact that in the end, it is convention delegates who cast the votes that pick presidential candidates. Delegates are party lifers.
This July, the GOP convention in Cleveland could be must-see TV.