Trump's Not the First to Push a Party Off a Cliff

Think this current U.S. presidential election season has gotten divisive? It's not the first time. Not by a long shot. Milkos/Abadonian/Tim Bradley/Eduarado Munoz Alvarez/Getty
Think this current U.S. presidential election season has gotten divisive? It's not the first time. Not by a long shot. Milkos/Abadonian/Tim Bradley/Eduarado Munoz Alvarez/Getty


The GOP has had a tough primary season. For months, leaders in the Republican Party publically denounced Donald Trump, a Republican contender for the U.S. presidency, in the strongest terms possible. Sen. Lindsey Graham called him a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot." House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested Trump "set aside bullying, set aside belittlement and appeal to higher aspirations." Mitt Romney delivered an entire speech on the "fraud" who would lead America "into the abyss."

It was, writes Rupert Cornwell in The Independent, an "unprecedented uprising by the Republican establishment."

And Trump only won more primaries.

With Trump's critical win in Indiana on May 3, it all came to a head. Trump's closest opponent, Ted Cruz, suspended his campaign, and John Kasich followed suit, ending the chance of a contested convention. Trump was the de facto presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, devoted anti-Trumpers stepped up efforts to find a third-party candidate, and Graham announced he would skip the Republican National Convention.

Some wonder if the Republican Party can survive such a dramatic and public breakdown of party unity. Yet both parties have weathered dramatic splits in the past. A contested Democratic Convention in 1924 devolved into fistfights.

Between 1832 and 1952, controversial nominees resulted in 26 contested (or brokered) conventions — 10 for the Republicans and 16 for the Democrats. A convention is contested when no single candidate has enough delegates to claim the nomination at the outset, so it's still open when delegates cast their first votes. A brokered convention is the next step: If no candidate wins on the first round of voting, voting continues as the party's "power brokers" work behind the scenes to sway allegiances, and someone eventually comes out on top.

But it's not always the front-runner. At the violence-marred Democratic convention of 1924, Northern Democrats supported New-York-establishment-backed Al Smith, Southern Democrats supported Ku Klux Klan-backed William McAdoo, and both candidates eventually gave up. After 16 days, 99 rounds of votes and a cross-burning in the park, Smith and McAdoo went home. On the 103rd ballot, the party nominated compromise candidate John W. Davis, who lost big to Calvin Coolidge.

In 10 of the 26 contested conventions, the nominees who entered the convention with the most delegates lost the nomination. Many leading Republicans had hoped for a contested convention in 2016. Yet with some notable exceptions, including Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, candidates nominated by deeply divided parties go on to lose the general. Theodore Roosevelt "stormed out" of the contested Republican Convention of 1912 and entered the race as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote with William Taft and giving Democrat Woodrow Wilson the presidency. 

In 1884, a Republican faction defected when the convention nominated former Secretary of State James Blaine. Saying the party "ha[d] thrown down the gauntlet of corrupt and partisan government," they decided to back the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, instead. Some credit them with securing the presidency for Cleveland, who beat Blaine by just 30,000 votes.

The same thing happened in 1964, except Barry Goldwater was the divisive nominee, Lyndon Johnson was the Democrat, and the Democrat won in a landslide.

Republicans endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016 seems about as likely as Northern Democrats endorsing McAdoo in 1924. On the other hand, David Frum says in the Atlantic that the 1884 endorsement of Grover Cleveland was "almost unimaginable in those days of white-hot partisan feelings."

If Trump's rise to presumptive nominee has taught us anything, it's not to assume. As of June 1, Trump had enough delegates, 1,239, to claim the Republican nomination (the magic number is 1,237), and Kasich and Cruz had "suspended" their campaigns. They had not, however, "withdrawn from the race," so they (and others) are still on primary ballots and the convention ticket, and delegates may still be bound to vote for them at the convention, at least in the first round.

What's more, a predictably complex set of circumstances originating in the convention's Rules and Platforms committee could actually free up Trump-bound delegates to vote for someone else in the first round, which could force a brokered convention. 

What happens next is anybody's guess. Of late, Sen. Graham seems to be toning down the anti-Trump speech. Trump and Paul Ryan released a joint statement about party unity on May 12, but Ryan stopped short of endorsing the candidate. The same day, CNN reported Cruz's people have been urging his supporters to keep seeking delegate positions, and to focus on securing spots on the Rules and Platforms committee.

Trump, for his part, has predicted riots if he isn't nominated at the convention in July.