Donald Trump’s lack of discipline and propensity to take high-risk gambles could undermine his chances in the home stretch to the Republican convention if he manages to spook the unbound delegates he might need to clinch the nomination.
The same thing happened to another Republican candidate who would eventually be revered as the party’s greatest modern hero – former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who took on incumbent President Gerald Ford for the party’s nomination in 1976. It was the last time the party looked like it was headed into a contested convention.
By challenging a sitting Republican President, Reagan promised to bring ideological purity to a rudderless party still shaken by Watergate. Reagan was an outsider who railed against the Washington “buddy system,” promising to raise the banner of “bold colors” rather than “pale pastels.”
Reagan risked open civil war, but his backers viewed his candidacy as healthy competition, especially since Ford – Richard Nixon’s appointed vice president who’d ascended to the Oval Office after Richard Nixon resigned – appeared unable to placate the party’s right-wing.
Reagan presented the party with a clear-cut ideological choice. Yet by the end of the primaries in June, Republican voters had rendered a split verdict: neither Ford nor Reagan had accumulated enough delegates to win the nomination outright. In turn, both contenders shifted their focus to wooing the unbound delegates who could tip the balance at the party’s convention, held in Kansas City that year.
As an incumbent, the trappings of the presidency gave Ford a natural advantage. Realizing that delegates could be unnervingly fickle, his aides prepared a file of research on each one, relying on cabinet members or local officials to keep tabs on them. As Ford’s delegate-tracker Jim Baker told journalist Jules Witcover, “We tried to start with the local contacts and build up to the point where the president himself called.”
Delegates were then treated to long phone conversations with Ford, and even visited the White House.
“They were trying to chase delegates because there were so few left,” recalls Clarke Reed, who represented the uncommitted Mississippi delegation.
Reed, who controlled 30 delegate votes, had vowed to remain neutral until the convention. But as an early Reagan backer, observers believed Reed’s entire delegation would support the former California governor.
“I spent a week calling my delegates, saying ‘do not sign on to the White House Ford crap’. It was hard to get them all on the phone in those days,” Reed said told MSNBC.
Now nearing his 88th birthday, Reed blames Reagan’s eventual defeat on the candidate’s “cavalier attitude” in naming as his vice presidential pick Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker three weeks before delegates convened at the convention.
Reagan chose Schweiker, a moderate, to provide ideological to ‘balance’ to his ticket, and – he hoped – to win additional uncommitted delegates from Schweiker’s home state. But the choice enraged conservatives like Reed, who were still incensed by Ford’s choice two years earlier of another moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, to be his vice president.
Reed said he warned Reagan against the pick. “I first heard about this on July 25th, and blasted them for what they were doing,” Reed said. “The next day he announced Schweiker as his pick for Vice President.”
Reagan’s ill-advised move was enough to convince him to switch his vote to Ford, Reed said, adding that Reagan’s campaign had assured him that the choice would help shake loose northeastern delegates.
“They said he’d get 40 votes out of Pennsylvania,” Reed said, noting the stampede to Reagan never materialized.
Instead, Reagan’s hasty choice of Schweiker backfired, alienating delegates from conservative strongholds like Mississippi.
With Reed’s delegation up for grabs, both campaigns tried to make a harder sell through the opening days of the convention. “Half the delegation was crying in one meeting we had,” Reed recalled, “because of the pressure we were under.”
In the end, the Mississippi delegation split, allowing Ford to take 14 of its 30 delegates. Mississippi was not decisive in the overall tally for Ford, as Reed noted, but it was one of many incremental gains that helped Ford in the home stretch.