By Robert Romano
All the buzz in Washington, D.C. is about the possibility of a contested convention in Cleveland, Ohio for the Republican nomination in July, presumably to stop GOP frontrunner Donald Trump from securing the nod.
Erick Erickson’s “Conservatives Against Trump” on March 17 released its plan to stop Trump — not by backing his top rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the remaining primaries — but by taking the nomination at the convention.
Said Erickson in the group’s statement, “We call for a unity ticket that unites the Republican Party.” But, if such a ticket cannot secure 1,237 delegates prior to the convention, “we encourage all candidates to hold their delegates on the first ballot.”
Of course, in order to block Trump at the convention would require the complicity of Cruz, who by July could be several millions of votes behind in the popular vote and hundreds of delegates short of securing the nomination himself — and who himself might not even be selected at such a convention.
But, before party leaders dust off their convention rulebooks and start conspiring in smoke-filled rooms, they may want to take a look at the history of Republican nominations the past century to see how these types of schemes have actually worked out for Republicans.
As it is, the modern political primary process began in 1912 when the first primaries were held. Prior to then, presidential candidates were selected by party leaders at conventions.
But the voters’ choice at the polls was not always the nominee at first. In fact, for Republicans the primary process got off to a rather rocky start in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt clearly won the popular vote against sitting President William Taft, but then the party nominated Taft who controlled the convention. Roosevelt, feeling cheated, ran third party, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
They might have been better off just giving the nomination to Roosevelt, if they had known he would run third party. Stealing the convention clearly cost Republicans the election.
And it wouldn’t be the last time. In 7 out of 10 instances when Republican voters selected one candidate at the primary polls by popular vote, and the party selected somebody else at the convention, the GOP lost the general election.
Repeat, they lost 70 percent of those elections, in 1912, 1916, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948.
The exceptions came in 1920, with Warren Harding, in 1952, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in 1968, with Richard Nixon. Although to be fair, in 1968, Nixon, who had won 9 states, was in a virtual tie for the popular vote with Ronald Reagan, who had just won his home state of California.
Still, the success rate is rather low.
It could be a political catastrophe for Republicans.
Comparatively, Republicans have won 53 percent of elections when they selected the candidate who won the primary popular vote, in 1924, 1928, 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004.
Turns out, voters are much better at picking winners than party bosses and convention delegates.
Sure, occasionally you wind up with a Harding, an Eisenhower, or a Nixon, but more than likely, you’ll get a William Taft, a Charles E. Hughes, a Herbert Hoover, an Alf Landon, a Wendell Wilkie, or a Thomas Dewey — twice.
Now, selecting the candidate who got the most votes is by no means a perfect strategy. Just ask Richard Nixon, who lost in 1960, or Barry Goldwater, who lost in 1964, or Gerald Ford, who lost in 1976, or George H.W. Bush, who lost in 1992, or Bob Dole, who lost in 1996, or John McCain, who lost in 2008, and Mitt Romney, who lost in 2012.
But the popular vote winner still probably represents the GOP’s best shot to win. From a Republican perspective, a 53 percent chance of victory is far better than a 70 percent chance of defeat, even if the nominee is Donald Trump, particularly if the alternative is a President Hillary Clinton. Something for Republican leaders and voters to keep in mind as the process moves forward.
Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.