It’s time to take seriously the possibility that Republicans could arrive at their presidential nominating convention this summer without having chosen a candidate. If that happens, the crucial disputes at the gathering in Cleveland will be about rules and procedures, not platforms and policies. The power brokers won’t be big-name senators but rather influential state officials and interest groups.
This was brought home with the death this past weekend of Drew Lewis, a central figure in the last contested convention. That was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan faced off against President Gerald Ford.
It’s an instructive model for what could happen starting this July if Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and a mainstream Republican divide up the delegates and no one has a majority.
Lewis, who was 84, was a pivotal player in denying Reagan the Republican nomination in 1976.
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After losing all the initial contests against the incumbent, Reagan rallied conservative forces with demagoguery, arguing that returning the Panama Canal to Panama would lead to the encirclement of the U.S. by hostile naval forces. Reagan won most of the later primaries, and when the contests ended in early June the two Republicans were virtually tied.
Then, using the perquisites of the presidency, Ford began to pick up delegates. John Sears, the brilliant Reagan campaign manager, realized that the challenger couldn’t win a war of attrition. With Sen. Paul Laxalt, a Reagan confidant, he persuaded the Gipper to choose the liberal Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate. This was announced three weeks before the convention opened.
As Sears hoped, it was such a shock that Republicans stepped back to take stock.
Ford, however, retained a small but clear advantage. Sears’s next gambit was a proposed rules change that would have required any candidate to announce a running mate before being nominated, forcing Ford to make a choice that might alienate one faction or the other and swing votes to Reagan.
A key in the rule-change vote, held on the convention’s second day, was the pro-Ford Pennsylvania delegation. If Schweiker could persuade his fellow Pennsylvanians to support it, it would send a message across the convention.
But Lewis, head of the Ford delegation in the state, outworked Schweiker and Pennsylvania voted against the rule change. That sealed the nomination for Ford.
That history shows why fights over rules are likely to be decisive if no Republican comes into the convention with a majority.
And it suggests that the key players will be interest groups like the National Rifle Association and religious-conservative organizations.
Someone may be even fortunate enough to find a Drew Lewis.
Reagan was so impressed with Lewis that he enlisted Lewis to be his transportation secretary when he won the presidency four years later.