Hudson: Trump’s wild ride to convention could hit historically predicted dead end

Author: Miller Hudson - April 12, 2016 - Updated: April 13, 2016

Miller Hudson

“Close only counts in horseshoes.” The old adage is nowhere more meaningful than at national political conventions. This round, Democrats are salivating at the opportunity to run against Donald Trump in November; but, truth be told, he is becoming increasingly less likely to emerge as the Republican nominee. One minor historical fact consistently overlooked is that never has a frontrunner been nominated at an “open” or “contested” American political convention of either major party on the first ballot.

Colorado Republicans just made such a situation a little more likely in 2016.

Think about it.

If Trump fails, as appears increasingly likely, to secure 1,273 delegates before arriving in Cleveland, he will almost certainly return to New York as a footnote — albeit a lengthy one — to the 2016 Presidential race.

Do you remember who led the first ballot at the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln? Exactly.

Historians explain the multiple ballot phenomenon as an “alliance of convenience,” meaning all the remaining candidates begin by locking in their delegates against the initial leader. Then, gradually, they whittle away at the frontrunner’s support on subsequent ballots until an acceptable alternative can be identified. The candidate walking into convention with the lead has everything to lose as voting continues, and challengers everything to gain by bargaining and looking for deals. Bottom line: The candidate with the most delegates prior to convention must do everything in his or her power to sew up those delegate votes on the first ballot.

Trump hired a team to accomplish just that, opening an office in Washington D.C. that will consolidate “the functions related to the nomination process.” Trump’s campaign knows, at this point in the race, direct lobbying with the delegates is the biggest show in town. But is it too late?

Team Trump is not making any history by shifting into to a delegate-geared strategy. When Ted Kennedy jumped into the 1980 race against Jimmy Carter, at least one uncommitted Colorado delegate received several personal phone calls from Jimmy’s wife Rosalynn and another from the president himself.

The most recent open convention contest, in which the outcome remained in doubt until just days before convention, was the Republican primary of 1968. Richard Nixon faced several competitors including Nelson Rockefeller. Favorite son candidates were more popular back then, providing state delegations bargaining power with presidential campaigns. You might recall that Gary Hart went to the 1984 Democratic convention as Colorado’s favorite son.

In 1968, Spiro Agnew, the Republican governor of Maryland controlled his delegation. Agnew was an accidental governor in a heavily Democratic state, only elected following a four-way Democratic primary in 1966 that resulted in the victory of Democrat George Mahoney, an ally of George Wallace, who ran on the slogan, “A man’s home is his castle.” Agnew, the elected executive of Baltimore County, had been expected to serve as a sacrificial lamb in the governor’s race. But, Democrats swarmed to his candidacy by the tens of thousands once Mahoney seized the Democratic nomination. Believed to be a Rockefeller supporter Agnew controlled a delegation large enough to guarantee Richard Nixon his first ballot majority.

During the 1960s and 1970s Maryland had a well-deserved reputation for corruption, nearly as robust as Illinois today. Several governors and legislators, most notably three-term Democratic governor Marvin Mandel, were convicted of taking bribes. I was president of the student government at the University of Maryland in 1967 and met Gov. Agnew several times, including at the running of the Preakness. I couldn’t help noting his sartorial tastes were tailor-made and inordinately expensive — more so than I would expect of a former civil servant.

But back to the point … with its questionable ethics in tow, the Nixon campaign was desperate to secure a majority of delegates for the nomination and offered Agnew any job he wanted in exchange for double-crossing Rockefeller. Former Maryland Senator Joe Tydings, now deceased, told me that Agnew, who was unlikely to be re-elected in 1970 facing Mandel, shocked Nixon’s aides by demanding the vice-presidency, a position he was given and from which he continued to collect cash stuffed envelopes. To use a comparative example from more recent political history, Agnew’s selection as veep was perhaps almost as surprising as John McCain’s choosing Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008.

Agnew’s ride was short-lived. In 1973, he was unceremoniously dumped with a plea deal for tax evasion in anticipation of a Nixon impeachment. Gerald Ford proved the beneficiary. You see, almost anything can be traced to a brokered convention.

Fast forward back to Trump, it’s still hard to guess whether he can secure a majority. The math is theoretically possible, but the odds are a long shot. Should Trump fail — self-proclaimed super-negotiator that he is — don’t count on Ted Cruz as the inevitable winner. Anything is possible once Republican delegates take the wheel and start steering the nomination process. So long as totalitarian rulemaking is not shoved down delegates’ throats by parliamentary procedure — an approach Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus has vowed not to take — the delegates will have a great deal of control. Lucky for us, it will all unfold above-board and on national television rather than in those old, smoke-filled rooms where there will be less chance for funny business, at least compared to 1960s standards.

Many activists have begun conceding that perhaps Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House and the executive committee got it right when they decided not to bind their delegates out of precinct caucuses. Others still remain disappointed the national convention isn’t happening in their backyards right here in Colorado. The RNC is rumored to have skipped Denver for this year’s convention because of Colorado voters’ decision to legalize marijuana. Skipping a state with a legalized feel-good drug to host what could be an unhinged event in GOP politics is a decision they may soon regret.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.