The Republican Convention: History and Warnings

FedUp PAC StaffTed Cruz Shaking Hands

As it becomes more and more likely that no candidate will arrive at the Republican National Convention with a majority of the delegates, a point of dispute has been whether the delegate leader deserves to receive the nomination or whether the delegates should feel free to continue voting for as long as it takes for a majority to rally behind one candidate.

Donald Trump, currently leading in the delegate count, stated the opinion held by some. “And frankly, whoever at the end, whoever has the most votes and the most delegates should be the nominee.”

History, however, tells us that the first ballot leader has not customarily been handed the nomination if he lacks majority support. From 1856 through 1948, nine Republican conventions went beyond the first ballot. (Every convention since 1948 has been decided on the first ballot.) In only three of those nine did the first ballot leader eventually win the nomination. In every case, the eventual nominee started out far behind on the first ballot. Abraham Lincoln trailed William Seward by 173.5 to 102. The other five were even farther behind their front-runner than Lincoln, none having even half as many delegates on the first ballot.

Never have the trailing candidates simply withdrawn and allowed the front-runner to automatically receive the nomination. Conventions, unlike a hypothetical national primary, are intended to lead to the nomination of someone who can demonstrate broad support within the party, rather than merely winning a plurality.

Delegates are free to consider how close each candidate is to their own policy preferences and his chances of being elected. William Seward was passed over in 1860 when he appeared to be outside the GOP mainstream. James G. Blaine, the first-ballot leader in 1876, was denied the nomination because of concerns that he could not be elected. {Eight years later Blaine was nominated, and lost.)

History also suggests that candidates which have only a first ballot plurality instead of a majority are not a good bet in November. All three of the plurality candidates who were nominated on a later ballot lost, but when the front-runner was rejected by the convention, five out of six won the election. (The exception, not surprisingly, was establishment favorite Wendell Willkie.)

Convention delegates are granted the power to use their own judgment if the convention is unable to immediately decide on a candidate. Conservatives must hope that they will use that power in Cleveland to choose a candidate who can motivate the GOP’s conservative majority and lead us to victory in November.