1976 Redux?

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Brokered Convention Isn't What You Think It Is

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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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 last week of Drew Lewis, a central figure in the last contested convention. That was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan faced off against President Gerald Ford. 

QuickTake U.S. Presidential Selection

It's an instructive model for what could happen starting this July 18 if Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and a mainstream Republican divide up the delegates and no one has a majority.  

Lewis, who was 84, is usually remembered as Reagan's transportation secretary when, in 1981, the government successfully broke a strike by the union representing air traffic controllers. But in 1976 he was a pivotal player in denying Reagan the Republican nomination in an intense struggle decided by a few votes.

The context: 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. (A Panama Canal treaty was signed a year later and took effect on Dec. 31, 1999.) 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 -- appointments, trips on Air Force One, small projects -- 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 Senator Paul Laxalt, a Reagan confidant, he persuaded the Gipper to choose the liberal Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, as his running mate. This was announced three weeks before the convention opened.

As Sears hoped, it had the effect, in football parlance, of freezing the linebackers; it was such a shock that Republicans stepped back to take stock.

Ford, however, retained a small but clear advantage, so while conservatives focused on the platform, Sears's next gambit was a proposed rules change that would have required any candidate to announce a running mate before being nominated. The idea was to force Ford to make a choice that might alienate one faction or the other and swing votes to Reagan.

Delegations from Mississippi to Illinois were in play on the rule-change vote, held on the second day of the convention. But a key was the pro-Ford Pennsylvania delegation. If Schweiker could persuade his fellow Pennsylvanians to support it, it would send a message across the Kansas City convention.

But Schweiker's longtime friend, neighbor and former campaign manager was Lewis, head of the Ford delegation in the state. With carrots and sticks, he outworked his old pal and Pennsylvania voted overwhelmingly against the rule change. That sealed the nomination for Ford. 

That history shows why fights over rules, not platform planks, are likely to be decisive in Cleveland if no Republican comes into the convention with a majority for the first time in 40 years.

And it suggests that the key players won't be powerful Washington lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker Paul Ryan. They'll be representatives of interest groups like the National Rifle Association and religious-conservative organizations, who are working to elect delegates this year for most of the leading contenders.

Someone may be even fortunate enough to find a Drew Lewis. Reagan was so impressed with the Pennsylvanian who helped defeat him that he enlisted Lewis for his cabinet when he won the presidency four years later.

The Ford forces remained confident that even with Schweiker they could hold Pennsylvania on any test vote. "We had Drew," recalls Stuart Spencer, the chief Ford strategist in the campaign. "We knew Drew controlled that delegation."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net