The Perils of a Contested Convention

The Perils of a Contested Convention
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CLEVELAND — A specter is haunting the Republicans as the march toward their midsummer nominating convention here continues.

Donald Trump is continuing to build his delegate count. Establishment Republicans are accelerating their desperate attempt to deny him the GOP nomination. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is portraying himself as the only plausible alternative to Mr. Trump and is accumulating reluctant adherents to his cause. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is holding onto hope that a home-state convention will turn to him as the strongest challenger to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The result: The Republicans are confronting the likelihood that their nomination battle will not be resolved conclusively before mid-July and that a fight will break out on the floor — and perhaps in the streets here surrounding the Quicken Loans Arena. So much so that this month Cleveland solicited bids for riot gear, collapsible batons and interlocking crowd-control steel barriers.

The specter haunting Republicans can be summarized in two figures: 1952 and 1968. And that specter is all the more unexpected because political conventions since 1968 have become so uneventful that the following words have come to summarize them: Innocuous. Scripted. Routine. Undramatic. Ceremonial. And worst of all for the parties who once used these quadrennial events as the way to launch their nominees and captivate the country: Boring.

Not perhaps this time, to the great distress of Republican officials who suddenly are seeing the virtue of an innocuous, scripted, routine, undramatic, ceremonial and boring convention.

All of this planning — all of this strategizing — is occasioned by the likelihood that the plodding that has come to characterize modern conventions will be supplanted by planning, which already has begun inside the Trump, Cruz and Kasich camps, all of which are girding for a bruising convention fight that they hope will leave the party united but that they acknowledge will more likely leave the party bitterly divided.

Both parties had convention fights in 1952, which leaves the Republicans of 2016 with a stark choice: Become the modern-day equivalents of the Republicans, whose delegates didn’t deliver a decisive decision after the first roll call of the states but who resolved their nomination fight with vote switches before a second ballot was necessary, delivering the nomination to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Or become the reincarnation of the Democrats, already divided by the 1948 Dixiecrat defection, who needed three ballots to select Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois.

As happens so many times in these situations, the united party (the Republicans) easily defeated the divided party (the Democrats) in 1952.

In both conventions, the tide turned when favorite sons — candidates with little support beyond their state delegations — moved toward the eventual nominee, Republican Gov. Harold Stassen of Minnesota to Gen. Eisenhower and Gov. Paul Dever of Massachusetts (along with former Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman) to Mr. Stevenson.

That’s less likely in 2016, as the nearest equivalent to a favorite son, Mr. Kasich, who thus far has won only his own state, is planning a convention strategy designed to win on a second, third or perhaps even later ballot. Mr. Kasich and Mr. Cruz know that many convention delegates will wander far from their first-ballot commitments once the contest moves into later ballots.

The South Carolina delegates, all claimed by Mr. Trump, could drift to other candidates, especially since many of them will be chosen next month at a state convention whose membership was chosen long before Mr. Trump emerged as a serious contender. In Iowa, where Mr. Cruz prevailed in the caucuses, the delegate-selection process isn’t complete and in truth has only begun.

So there will be great implications for the Iowa GOP’s own convention this spring, when the party chooses 15 statewide delegates plus three party officials to travel to Cleveland along with the 15 selected according to the February caucus results. The result, on the second ballot if not on the first, could look a lot different from the final caucus results.

One possible 2016 outcome — but still a long shot — was foreshadowed by the 1952 turn to Mr. Stevenson, who displayed little interest in the presidential nomination but who became the first nominee since Senator-elect James A. Garfield, who attended the 1880 Chicago convention as the campaign manager for another man, Treasury Secretary John Sherman, to be drafted for the nomination.

The other specter haunting the Republicans is a dark one, both for the Republicans and for the broader political system. It is the specter of the Democrats in 1968, when after the failure of Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to win sufficient convention delegates and the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, the convention turned to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had not won a single primary or caucus.

But it was the struggle in the streets that lingers in the American memory— violent conflict between protesters and police bearing clubs and launching tear-gas canisters.

The result was a spectacle that involved the mobilization of nearly 12,000 police and federal troops from as far away as Oklahoma and Colorado, demonstrations by Yippies, chaos in Grant Park, rally speeches by Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg and Phil Ochs, more than 200 injuries and the arrest of nearly 600, including a pig the Yippies nominated for president.

The upheaval prompted Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, in his podium speech nominating Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, to deplore what he called “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.’’ The remark, made in front of the Illinois delegation, prompted an unmistakable and unforgettable epithet from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

“It is something that has never happened before and I don't think it will happen again,” Mr. Ribicoff, who died in 1998, told a New York Times reporter 20 years ago.

That was before the spikes of violent protests at Trump rallies and the decision to award the GOP convention to Cleveland, where police, charged with employing excessive force and violating citizens’ civil rights, were ordered by the Justice Department last month to overhaul the force and draft a new use-of-force policy.

The danger for the Republicans in 2016 is that their convention will end the way H.L. Mencken suspected the 1932 convention that nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt would end: “The victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile.’’ Then again, FDR defeated Herbert Hoover and began a new era in American politics.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

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