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Taking It To The Limit: Cruz, Sanders, Kasich Could Revive Convention Wars

Vice President Hubert Humphrey (right) and his running mate, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, wave to the crowd with their wives at the Democratic Convention in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1968. Violence ensued inside and outside the convention hall.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey (right) and his running mate, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, wave to the crowd with their wives at the Democratic Convention in Chicago on Aug. 29, 1968. Violence ensued inside and outside the convention hall.

Ted Cruz has taken pictures with his vice presidential pick, their arms raised in the iconic V for victory pose. Bernie Sanders has talked about his platform, and John Kasich held a news conference to review plans for upcoming primaries and the convention in Cleveland.

What's going on here? Don't these guys know they're losing?

Front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are nearing the numbers of delegates each needs for a first-ballot victory at their respective conventions. Indiana's primary this week could make this all but inevitable.

But their three surviving rivals are still vowing to take their own campaigns "all the way" to the convention floor.

And why shouldn't they?

At least two of them, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, will have enough delegates at the national conventions in July to imperil party unity.

In Philadelphia, Sanders alone should have more than a third of the hall on his side, and fervently so. In Cleveland, the combined forces of Trump's rivals and the unpledged delegates may have roughly half the seats on the floor.

It is also possible that the official number of non-Trump delegates will understate their strength. The later stages of the process by which the actual attendees are chosen have been dominated by Cruz allies. We already know that some "Trump delegates" will not be chosen by his campaign but rather "assigned" to represent him — often on the first ballot only. That means that, in theory at least, a majority of the voting delegates in Cleveland may well prefer a candidate other than Trump in their heart of hearts.

If there is a second ballot, some of these delegates could bail on Trump. In this scenario, delegates whose real loyalty is to John Kasich or Marco Rubio would also matter.

So there are non-maniacal reasons for Cruz, Kasich and Sanders to continue to raise and spend money and campaign furiously from Indiana to Oregon to California and back to New Jersey.

Beyond the prospect of an actual nomination, each sees a chance to frame the issues and politics of the general election — and to influence party dynamics for years to come.

That's one reason Sanders held a news conference Sunday to note the anniversary of his candidacy and to proclaim — still — his chances of being the nominee this year.

Real contests have become rare at our national conventions in the decades since the primaries and caucuses began identifying the nominees. But contentious conventions, featuring what we still call "floor fights," are anything but unprecedented.

Conventions were, for a very long time, the place where nomination battles were joined, fought and won. That was their essential purpose. They defined the parties and their power.

But in 1968, at the height of the U.S. war in Vietnam, one of those convention battles became truly violent — both inside the convention hall and outside on the streets of Chicago. The then-dominant majority Democrats saw their ruling coalition torn apart in living color on national television.

That led to lots of earnestly egalitarian changes in the rules and the creation of the modern nominating process. Primaries would not be "advisory" anymore, but directly responsible for apportioning delegate votes among candidates.

Since then, in varying degrees, the people willing to turn out to vote in primaries or participate in party caucuses have chosen the nominees. The individual delegates who went to the conventions might still be party insiders, in that they would be individually selected at party meetings. But their votes at the convention were bound, in varying degrees, to the results of these primaries and caucuses.

Soon, a new normal emerged. Conventions stopped being contests or battlegrounds. They became instead a four-night infomercial for the parties and their candidates. Typically, the convention made no decisions of note and produced no real news that had not been known for weeks.

Even so, a handful of frustrated rivals have gone to the convention unwilling to play subservient roles or perform as cheerleaders. Here are the main ones in the modern era:

Hubert Humphrey in 1972:The year the new nominating rules were first in place, the runner-up in that year's primaries, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, went to the convention in Miami in a bellicose mood. Humphrey had been the nominee in 1968 even though he did not compete in any of the primaries. In 1972 he started late but closed the gap rapidly, almost winning California in June.

California mattered because it was allowed to vote as a bloc for Humphrey's rival, the anti-war hero George McGovern, who had won there with a plurality. Such "unit rule" voting was ended under the new rules, but California had been "grandfathered" for one more round. Humphrey's forces tried to overturn that exception on the floor on the first day of the convention. Had they done so, McGovern would have lacked a majority on the first ballot. But after an impassioned speech by Willie Brown, the first black speaker of the California Assembly, Humphrey's bid to break up that delegation was defeated. McGovern sailed on to the nomination — and a 49-state landslide loss in November.

Ronald Reagan in 1976:In a convention widely described as the last to be truly contested, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged his own Republican Party's incumbent president, Gerald R. Ford. Reagan lost the early primaries but then swept the South and the West and was clearly the favorite of conservative activists. In July, Reagan named a moderate-to-liberal running mate, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, in part because that state's delegation had a lot of uncommitted delegates (as it does today). The gambit failed, however, when Ford operatives were able to hold the Keystone State's delegation for the incumbent and beat back rules changes that tried to free the delegates from their pledges. As in 1972 on the Democratic side, the crucial vote was a procedural test on the first day of the convention. Ford's votes held up, and Reagan conceded.

Ted Kennedy in 1980:Just four years later, it was the Democrats who had an incumbent president (Jimmy Carter) who had displeased the party's activist base. Sen. Ted Kennedy sought the nomination and had support from many liberals, unions and minority voters. Polls briefly showed him ahead. But after the taking of American hostages in Iran late in 1979, Carter had an edge and the campaign was somewhat overshadowed. All the same, Kennedy did well enough in the primaries and caucuses to arrive at the New York convention with many delegates. An attempt to free all delegates to vote as they pleased failed after a lengthy fight, so Kennedy decided not to have his name placed in nomination. Nonetheless, he gave the only speech anyone remembers from the 1980 convention, perhaps the most memorable of his career. His grudging endorsement of the ticket was of little help to Carter, who lost to Reagan that November.

Gary Hart in 1984:Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, was the establishment favorite for the Democratic nomination against Reagan in 1984. But upstart Colorado Sen. Gary Hart won the New Hampshire primary and challenged Mondale elsewhere, winning in Ohio and California as well as many smaller states. Just before the convention in San Francisco, Mondale shored up his relatively modest lead among pledged delegates by naming a woman to the ticket, Geraldine Ferraro of New York. Hart's challenge faded as the convention opened, but he still got a prime-time speech in which to tease his future ambitions and assert the claims of younger party members. Mondale went on to lose 49 states to Reagan in November.

Jesse Jackson in 1988:The Democrats began the 1988 cycle with no clear front-runner but a large field of hopefuls (sometimes disparaged as the "Seven Dwarves"). Although he won few voting events, Jesse Jackson was the most compelling of the Democratic contenders. The African-American activist was originally from South Carolina but had followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement and made a name for himself later in Chicago. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis got to the convention with the most delegates, and he was clearly not interested in making Jackson his running mate. But the party gave Jackson one night of the convention to speak and to celebrate with his delegates and other supporters, who took over the hall for that session.

Pat Buchanan in 1992:A well-known speechwriter for Nixon, Buchanan had long since returned to newsprint commentating and TV punditry when George H.W. Bush became president. But he was so exercised over Bush's acceptance of a tax increase in 1990 that he mounted a quixotic bid to snatch the nomination from him in 1992. Although he did not win any primaries that year, Buchanan was able to hold down Bush's margins and embarrass him. So the Bush forces gave Buchanan a featured speaking slot on the first night of the convention in Houston, hoping to appease party hard-liners. Buchanan produced a law-and-order jeremiad that dominated the news and set the tone for the week.

Jerry Brown in 1992:This was Brown's third bid for the White House. The first was a late-entry affair in 1976, when he was the 37-year-old wunderkind first-term governor of California. He ran again in 1980, while in his second term, although his challenge to Carter was overshadowed by Kennedy's. Absent from the presidential wars for a dozen years, Brown returned in 1992, recast as a populist champion, railing against the evils of the campaign finance system and wearing a union-donated bowling team jacket. Regarded as a curiosity at first, Brown outlasted other rivals to the party's rising star, Bill Clinton.

The two tussled in debates over issues and over an ad Brown aired that criticized Clinton's wife, Hillary.

"You're not worthy to be on the same stage with my wife," Clinton replied. But just as he became the last real alternative to Clinton, Brown stumbled badly in the New York primary in April (after singling out Jesse Jackson as a strong prospect to be his running mate). Nevertheless, Brown soldiered on to the convention in New York, where "Let Jerry Speak" became the rallying cry for many labor delegates and other activists. Brown was given a speaking slot on the third night of the convention. Speaking for half an hour, he mentioned Clinton only twice and did not endorse him. No defeated challenger has received such an honorific speaking slot without endorsing the nominee at a major convention since.

A Sea Change

The new pattern would take hold, with little issue in 1996 and 2000.

In 2008, the staged and scripted convention reached new levels of made-for-TV showmanship both in Denver, where Barack Obama was nominated on a set with Grecian pillars, and in St. Paul, where vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin stole the show. But there was little other reason to watch either event. Ditto in 2012, when Obama was renominated and the Republicans went with Mitt Romney after canceling the convention's first night for bad weather. It scarcely seemed to matter.

It might have been different in 2008, at least on the Democratic side, if runner-up Hillary Clinton had chosen to battle all the way to the Denver meeting. Clinton had won nearly as many votes nationwide and was only about 100 pledged delegates behind her upstart rival when the primaries came to an end. Moreover, she had won two populous states, Michigan and Florida, whose delegations could change the picture appreciably if they were allowed to vote their full delegation strength. But both states had jumped the line on primary scheduling, defying the party rules and calendar. So when the Rules and Bylaws Committee met in Washington, D.C., in late May, they decided to keep strictures in place and cut both states in half.

That was the last straw for Clinton, who needed more from Florida and Michigan to keep the contest alive. Even after winning the California primary on June 3, Clinton formally ended her candidacy four days later. She did not want a convention divided between her supporters and Obama's, plain and simple. The tactics she would need to use to prevail would, in all likelihood, divide the party and empower its opponents.

Still, an angry group that called themselves PUMA (usually interpreted to mean Party Unity My Ass) maintained the struggle and protested at the convention. Clinton herself was, by contrast, a model of concession and cooperation at the convention — moving personally to make the nomination of Obama unanimous. Thereafter, she and her husband have maintained a working truce and relationship with the Obama administration that includes the tacit support she has had from the Obama White House in 2016.

So which of these models will be emulated by the remaining rivals this year? Will Cruz and Kasich conspire to crack open the RNC in Cleveland? Will they at least try to force a second ballot, at which time Trump's spell over the party might be broken? Or will they see that as a Pyrrhic victory at best, bespoiling the prize at the moment of seizing it?

The choice for Sanders is perhaps clearer. Unless something extraordinary happens to stop her, Hillary Clinton is likely to have the needed delegates as soon as the last California votes are counted on June 7. But Sanders can still speak in Philadelphia, if he agrees to endorse Clinton and negotiate on the platform. If he wants to withhold his formal support, or dictate demands for the platform that cannot be negotiated, he will have the backing of his legion of supporters. But he will risk damaging the party that has given him the opportunity to reach that legion and build that support.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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