Historically, recent Democratic and Republican national conventions, essentially, have ratified the results of the party’s presidential primaries. However, that does not mean conventions have little impact on the outcome of the general election. The optics of a national convention can set a significant tone for the general election. Here are a few events from past conventions that, to some degree, affected general-election outcomes:
▪ In 1964, conservative and moderate delegates at the Republican convention in San Francisco frequently clashed in full view of the American public. Nelson Rockefeller’s speech was roundly booed from the floor, and Sen. Barry Goldwater’s speech was viewed by some as a goodbye kiss to moderate Eastern Republicans.
▪ The 1968 and 1972 Democratic conventions devolved into total chaos, leaving Americans wondering how the party could run the country if it could not even run a four-day convention. Sen. George McGovern’s acceptance speech in Miami Beach in 1972 did not even begin until 3 a.m. The only people that heard it were those of us actually on the convention floor.
▪ The lasting image of the Democratic Convention in 1980 was President Jimmy Carter awkwardly raising the hand of a reluctant Sen. Ted Kennedy, the losing rival for the nomination.
▪ Many advisers to George H.W. Bush still think his convention mistakenly emphasized the culture wars over the economy. As political pundit Molly Ivins wrote of Pat Buchanan’s speech: “It probably sounded better in the original German.”
All this has led me to think about the upcoming Republican convention in Cleveland in July. It has all the ingredients to become a major debacle, starting with the Republican delegate selection process.
Unlike the Democrats, the Republican candidates do not get to choose their own delegates in 44 of the 56 states and territories. Take Florida, which Trump won easily, as one example. Florida Republican delegates will likely be Jeb Bush/Marco Rubio establishment types committed to Trump only for the first ballot. In Louisiana, Ted Cruz claims to have a majority of the party-controlled delegates, even though Donald Trump won the state.
The other critical factor is that each convention writes its own rules, so these pseudo-Trump delegates will do everything they can to undermine him through innovative or opaque rule changes.
Why would these delegates undermine the outcome of their own primaries? Obviously they fear Trump will be defeated by the Democratic nominee in epic fashion. The most recent polls show Trump losing women voters to Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin. It would be impossible for him to win with this huge a gender gap, and it would endanger Republican control of the U.S. Congress. It could even affect Republican candidates in a number of state legislative races.
All this means that even though Trump has 2 million more total votes than Cruz, if he doesn’t have the necessary 1,237 delegates on the first ballot, he will not win the nomination. It is after the first ballot where things can start to get ugly. The real Trump delegates in Cleveland will believe, with some legitimacy, that the nomination was stolen from them.
It also doesn’t mean Cruz will win. He is the Trump alternative, but only for the moment. A few months ago, he was widely viewed as one of the most reviled members of the U.S. Senate. Given that his immigration policy is virtually the same as Trump’s, one has to wonder how sincere the endorsements the Jeb Bushes of the world really are.
Finally, Trump and Cruz’s antipathy for each other got very personal recently. They both understand that the large super PACS are subtly coordinated with candidates they support.
So when the “Make America Great” super PAC revealed the GQ shot of a nude Melania Trump, that did not happen accidentally. And since Trump is known to have close ties with the National Enquirer, that paper’s comments about Ted Cruz’s alleged philandering was not a coincidence.
All this uncivil muck and anger will spill out on the convention floor, where delegates are not so quick to forget. And count on mainstream and social media to stir the pot.
Some of my Republican friends cannot wait to see what happens. Me, either!
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.