Republican leaders are now talking openly about that most legendary creature in the political bestiary: A contested convention.
While Donald Trump is winning lots of primaries, he’s done so with relatively small percentages in a crowded field. With most delegates being allocated proportionately so far (that will change), is it possible that he won’t have a majority of the delegates going into this summer’s convention in Cleveland? In that case, could all the anti-Trump factions put together a majority for someone else?
This probably won’t happen for at least two reasons.
One, winning changes voters’ psychology. The more Trump wins, the more reconciled some Republicans will become to the prospect of a Trump nomination. Call it the Chris Christie Syndrome. Look for more endorsements to come.
Two, Trump’s opponents can’t even agree on a basic strategy on how to defeat him. Some think the key is to get this to a two-man race — can Trump really get 50 percent-plus-one? But who?
Marco Rubio is by far the party’s best general election candidate — he consistently polls the best against Hillary Clinton, and has the best favorable/unfavorable ratings. The problem is that Rubio has failed to connect with most GOP voters outside the suburbs (just look at last week’s Virginia results).
Ted Cruz could best prosecute the case against Trump with evangelicals and those seeking an “outsider” — but Cruz is so unpopular with party leaders that some might actually prefer Trump to him.
Other say, somewhat counterintuitively, yes, the multi-candidate field enables Trump, but also enables his opponents — let Cruz and Rubio (and John Kasich) pick up delegates where they can. Yes, that means Trump keeps winning, but he maybe he won’t win enough delegates, and somebody can work out the details later.
One catch: Starting March 15, states are allowed to have winner-take-all races. Trump right now leads in the two biggest ones - Florida and Ohio. If he wins those you can kiss those fantasies of a contested convention goodbye.
Once upon a time — in a time before television, and the modern system of primaries — contested conventions were the rule.
The last convention to go multiple ballots was in 1952, when it took three ballots for the Democrats to nominate Adlai Stevenson. Of note: He trailed Estes Kefauver on the first two ballots. Then the fourth-place candidate, Averill Harriman, dropped out and swung his delegates to second-place Stevenson.
Those were different days, though, when party discipline was tighter, and party “bosses” really could sit in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” and deliver a slate of delegates in return for who knows what? How would a contested convention work in the age of Twitter? Delegates nowadays would likely consider themselves to be more free agents than functionaries of a party boss. A contested convention might be the best reality TV show of the year.
The most famous — or infamous — contested convention was the 1924 Democratic convention, which took 103 ballots to resolve. The ordeal dragged on for 16 days, prompting the Massachusetts delegation to famously consider its options: “Either we must switch to a more liberal candidate or move to a cheaper hotel.”
The Democrats’ difficulties that year were many. You think the Republicans this year started with a lot of candidates? The 1924 Democrats had more — 19 got votes on the first ballot, including Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, who was from Lynchburg.
There were two main candidates, though — William McAdoo and Al Smith — and their supporters were determined that the other guy shouldn’t get it. McAdoo led throughout, starting at 39 percent, and finally topping out at 48 percent of the vote on the 80th ballot.
Democrats had a rule, though, requiring a two-thirds majority. (Both parties now just require a simple majority). This simply wasn’t going to happen, at least not for McAdoo or Smith. After 102 ballots, they finally dropped out and the exhuasted delegates turned to John Davis of West Virginia, a former congressman, solicitor general, and ambassador.
Local angle: Davis was a graduate of Washington & Lee University, where he majored in Latin, then went on to law school there, as well. Davis was considered such a star student that after just a year of private practice, W&L invited him back as a law professor. He taught law for a year, then decided he preferred the “rough and tumble” of the courtroom over the classroom. He returned to Clarksburg, West Virginia, and became one of the most famous lawyers in the country, eventually arguing 140 cases before the Supreme Court. (He was on the losing side of one of the cases merged into the Brown vs. Board of Education school segregation case; Burt Lancaster played him in the movie “Separate But Equal.”)
W&L remains so proud of Davis that it has a building name in his honor — John W. Davis Hall houses administrative offices and the Student Health Center. The graduating law student with the highest grade point average is awarded the John W. Davis Prize. And each year the law school holds an event called the John W. Davis Moot Court Competition.
Alas, Davis may still be a big name in Lexington but getting nominated on the 103rd ballot didn’t do much for his electoral prospects. Not only did he lose to President Calvin Coolidge, he polled just 28.8 percent of the vote — the smallest share that any Democrat has ever polled. Yes, even George McGovern did better. Davis didn’t even carry his home state of West Virginia.
By all accounts, the 1924 Democratic convention was a sorry, dreadful affair, whose tone can be summed up by this advice one senator gave after the 61st ballot: “We must continue to do all that we can to nominate Smith. If it should develop that he cannot be nominated, then McAdoo cannot have it either.”
And so it went.
Republicans, take note.
There is one other local angle: After Davis was nominated, the party still had to pick a running mate. Thirteen names were proposed, including, for the first time, that of a woman — Lena Springs, a North Carolina college professor who had done her post-graduate work at the now-defunct Virginia College in Roanoke.
She got 42 votes and finished fourth, but made history nonetheless.