A Field Guide to the Delegate-Hunting Season

First Lady Betty Ford, left, stands surrounded by signs supporting Pres. Gerald Ford and Ronald Regan at the nominating session of the 1976 GOP convention. First Lady Betty Ford, left, stands surrounded by signs supporting Pres. Gerald Ford and Ronald Regan at the nominating session of the 1976 GOP convention. AP file photo

If you thought that the Republican Party primaries have been pretty crazy in recent months, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Most of the attention so far has focused on the intriguing possibility of a “brokered convention” in Cleveland. If neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz has enough delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot, all hell will break lose. The decision will go to the second and third ballots, when the rules allow delegates to vote for someone other than the person who originally won their state’s vote. The delegates will haggle and debate—some fear even fight—until a decision is reached. 

Cruz’s string of delegate victories in recent weeks combined with more favorable states ahead and a new alliance with John Kasich makes such an outcome more likely—unless of course Trump is able to continue to score overwhelming victories in the few rounds of primary voting that are left. Americans are now watching a two-track primary. Trump is fighting to win enough delegates in the next month that the outcome will be resolved by the Republican convention’s first ballot. He is getting very close. Cruz, meanwhile, is working to win support at state conventions, pushing the party to select delegates who will vote for him if the decision is brokered this summer.

But what has not yet received much attention is the period between the California primary and the convention, which might be uglier to watch than anything else. If Trump gets close to winning 1,237 delegates but falls short by a few hundred votes or less, the candidates will begin politicking at Olympian levels to win over uncommitted delegates. It is the kind of competition that certainly will not do much to improve public confidence in the political process.

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This is exactly what took place in 1976, when President Gerald Ford failed to put down an unexpected primary challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. After Reagan won the Texas and California primaries, it was clear that the fight would continue right up to the Republican Convention in Kansas City. Ford, who had succeeded Richard Nixon when he resigned in disgrace in 1974, was short of the votes that he needed to clinch the nomination.

What resulted was a throwback to 19th-century democracy, when candidates were willing to do almost anything to win over support. Back in the 19th century, booze and bribes were the democratic tools of choice. There was some of that in 1976, though most of the courting revolved around direct personal appeals to approximately 150 uncommitted delegates. Ford did everything possible to use the power of the presidency to his advantage. He even went so far as to speak to the friends and family of delegates, hoping that they could sway the decision.

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Most of the delegates, though, loved being at the center of attention. President Ford spent one hour each day that May personally phoning delegates—a period known as “campaign calls”—with specific directions from his advisers about what to say. The president knew when to congratulate a delegate on his daughter’s birthday and when to talk about specific local concerns. According to the historian Rick Perlstein, the president called a beauty parlor to talk to Marlene Zinzel, a delegate from Oakville, Missouri, while she was having her hair styled. When one delegate was asked if a personal call from the president had made a difference, he said: “Heck yes! That was the president of the United States calling. You don’t get something like that every day.”

Some delegates required more than a phone call. Many were promised visits to the White House. Perlstein notes that farmers who made a trip to the White House were first greeted by the secretary of agriculture, while bankers were met by the secretary of commerce. The journalist Jules Witcover has recounted how one delegate was even invited to join the president on the USS Forrestal—to sit on the flight deck next to the most powerful person in the world and watch the bicentennial fireworks. James White, a delegate from Rochester, New York, joked to The Washington Post, “I hope they’re sending Air Force One for me, I wouldn’t accept anything less.”

According to Craig Shirley, the author of a book about the 1976 campaign, to win over the many uncommitted Mississippi delegates, Ford targeted the state’s Republican Party chairman, Clarke Reed—who was right out of central casting for Southern Political Boss. Ford’s campaign manager, Dick Cheney, invited Reed to the White House—along with Reed’s rival, Charles Pickering. Cheney and his staff orchestrated the coinciding visit to scare Reed into thinking that the administration did not need him. Ford adviser Harry Dent didn’t like this tactic. He told Cheney, “You’ve got to play the big card,” by having the president personally win Reed over. Dent, meanwhile, privately warned the Mississippi delegation that they would be pivotal to ensuring the Democrats did not win the White House and isolate the South.

Ford also appointed the wily James Baker, who had served as undersecretary of commerce, to act as his point man in hunting down delegates. Baker was a political mastermind who immediately learned every detail about the uncommitted delegates. “He wanted to know everything about them—their worries, their birthdays, their neighbors’ names, their heroes, their favorite colors, everything,” reported Taylor Branch in Texas Monthly. Baker even sent out a biographical questionnaire to each delegate in order to obtain the data he needed. Baker then appointed “persuaders,” who were assigned to help the administration win over the support of a given delegate. Persuaders could range from prominent politicians to local farmers. Always aware that the media would play a pivotal role in the outcome, Baker shared the name of every delegate committed to the president with the press, who could then check and verify the information, putting Reagan in a defensive position when he stated that his campaign was catching up to Ford’s. Baker accused Reagan campaign manager John Sears of “blowing smoke” when he made claims about picking up a delegate. Years later, Baker described his 1976 strategy in simple terms: “Acquire delegates, protect your delegates, and steal other delegates.”

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Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, was no slouch himself. A group of Texans known as “Reagan’s Raiders” worked hard to convince delegates to vote for someone other than the sitting president. Reagan made constant references to his movie friends when making calls to delegates. According to Shirley, Reagan would ask delegates if they wanted to come to dinner, causally adding: “By the way, do you mind if I bring along John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart?” The chief of staff to the Mississippi delegation, Haley Barbour, recalled in an interview withPolitico that his state had the largest bloc of uncommitted delegates: “A lot of people got calls from Jimmy Stewart and Pat Boon. There were a lot of people from Hollywood for Reagan.”

Reagan was also clearly aware of the power of his charming personality. When on the phone with Iowa delegates, he took kindly to being called “Dutch,” his nickname when he was a Des Moines sports caster. He had a long conversation with a farmer about the Reagan ranch in California to prove his agricultural bona fides. In June, Reagan flew to district conventions in Iowa and Washington to personally appeal to the delegates. “In primaries where Democrats can cross over,” Reagan said, “I have won without fail.” Many delegates were so captivated by Reagan’s personality that Baker’s persuaders were no match for it. One delegate, for example, had at first been blown away by his visit to meet Ford. “Here I am, a young lawyer,” he said. “Imagine! I spent an hour in the Blue Room with the president. I asked the president a question and eyeballed him while he answered. He didn’t waiver. I was impressed.” But after Reagan talked to that delegate on the phone, the delegate threw his support behind Reagan.

The search for delegates went right into the convention. The New York Times’ Joseph Lelyveld noted that a bulletin board in the White House press room, which featured a list of Cabinet members so that reporters could sign up to meet with them, was rendered pointless. Lelyveld reported that all the Cabinet secretaries were “too busy chasing Eldon Ulmer, Eliza Sprinkle, Hannibal Tavares, and other uncommitted Republican delegates who were enjoying, or at least enduring, national celebrity because they couldn’t make up their minds.” One delegate at the convention hurt her leg badly after falling off the wooden platform that covered up the television and lighting wires. As she lay there in pain, White House adviser Tom Korologos recalled in an interview, administration officials were desperate to get her back in the game—because her alternate supported Reagan. So they found a congressman from Kentucky who was also a doctor to hastily make a splint out of convention programs. This allowed the wounded delegate to stay on the floor until the first ballot was over.

In the end, Ford was able to capitalize on the power of the White House to outflank his opponent. Reagan also made a devastating mistake when he announced before the convention that his running mate would be Senator Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican who received support from the AFL-CIO and seemed to defy every conservative principle that Reagan stood for. The play didn’t work. Rather than building support at the last minute, it turned some of his true believers off.

But Ford only won the first ballot by an extraordinarily narrow margin of 1,187 to 1,070. The process left most Republicans unnerved as they realized how close the vote had been.

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This time around, the political horse-trading would be unlike anything that Ford or Reagan ever considered. While Ford had the power of the presidency at his disposal, Trump has the wealth and chutzpah to throw endless riches at the delegates. Cruz, with the fervent support of the anti-Trump campaign, including wealthy backers, will be prepared to do the same. Recently, while blasting a “corrupt” process, Trump simultaneously sent a not-so-subtle signal: “Look, nobody has better toys than I do. I can put the delegates in the best planes and bring them to the best resorts anywhere in the world. Doral, Mar-a-Lago. I can put them in the best places in the world.”

Even though, in 1976, the nation was just getting over the trauma of Watergate, the impact of the 2016 spectacle could be even worse for the body politic. Foremost, since Nixon’s downfall, over four decades of anti-government rhetoric has deeply damaged and undercut public confidence in democratic institutions. It would be devastating to watch the Republican candidates literally try to buy support at a time when the campaign-finance system has led many citizens to believe that politics is already too corrupt. It would confirm all the worst fears voters have about elections.

Unlike in 1976, the media scrutiny of these deals would also be far more intense. With 24-hour news coverage and a reporter behind every iPhone, the deal making would be under a constant microscope. Americans would be able to see and hear every part of the courtship in way that was impossible four decades ago. It is one thing to read a story about the president inviting a delegate to the White House, but quite another to see a video of Trump having a drink with someone from Pennsylvania in a Florida spa. One can easily imagine just how far the candidates will sink.The delegate hunt would likely work to Trump’s advantage. His glamor and celebrity status will be extremely appealing and offer something that Cruz—whose own supporters don’t even really like him—can’t match. And as Trump said, he has an entire treasure chest of gifts that would be very tempting for many Republicans who are trying to decide where to throw their support.

It is too late to do much about any of this now. The rules are the rules, and it is difficult and not really fair to change them in the middle of a competition. The main problem is that there are not many rules governing the fight over the delegates’ votes. Federal and state bribery laws involving elected officials don’t have much to say about private citizens being approached by political parties. And while the Federal Election Commission does have some limits on what delegates can accept from organizations and federal contractors, delegates are allowed to obtain money for travel and expenses from other sources without much limitation. What’s more, neither the FEC nor the Republican National Committee has very strong or clear rules about what delegates can accept from the candidates themselves. Candidates can’t promise jobs in exchange for support and they can’t promise to move on legislation, but even this can be a gray area since a party-convention ballot is not like an election ballot.

Once this campaign is over, it will be time for the parties and the FEC to think carefully about reform. There are many aspects of the current process—from the influence of superdelegates to the ability of delegates in various states to vote against the majority of their state—that have raised concerns about whether parts of the current process undercut the reforms put in place in the 1970s. Which of course were intended to make the nomination process more democratic and fair.

When all the wounds and warts of the 2016 nomination process have been exposed—particularly if there is a repeat of the 1976 contested election on a grander stage—the time for change will be at hand. It will be impossible to totally squeeze every ugly element out of the political process, but following periods that expose the weaknesses of a deliberative system, Americans have historically been able to make politics better. And they can do so again.

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