Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich works the crowd after a town hall meeting at the River Steel plant, March 28, 2016, in West Salem, Wis.
Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

John Kasich turns to history to reassure supporters

John Kasich seems to understand that by the time the presidential primaries and caucuses are over, he’s going to trail his Republican rivals by every relevant metric: delegates, victories, and votes. Common sense suggests it’s a recipe for failure.
But the Ohio governor still doesn’t see it that way. Time magazine reported yesterday that Kasich and his top aides spent some time this week trying to “reassure supporters and potential delegates” that the campaign is still on the right track, primary and caucus results notwithstanding.
During an hour-long conference call after Kasich’s final town hall event in Wisconsin ahead of the state’s April 5 primary, the candidate addressed delegates and potential delegates to the GOP convention in Cleveland, as well as top donors and volunteers, to reassure them he has no intention of dropping out of the race. […]
Kasich and his senior advisers maintain that the Republican race is heading for a contested convention – with no candidate having the 1,237 delegates required to win the nomination on the first ballot.
And that may very well be true. Donald Trump is obviously leading the GOP pack, but whether or not he can cross the 1,237-delegate threshold remains an unresolved question – though this may not be entirely relevant to Kasich’s ambitions, given how much further back he’ll finish.
But the governor added an interesting historical detail: “Of the 10 Republican contested conventions, only three times did the frontrunner become the Republican nominee.”
This got me thinking: is Kasich correct? In contested Republican conventions, has the frontrunner usually lost?
The answer is, not really. The tricky part is trying to define what “frontrunner” means.
In 1976, there was a contested Republican convention, with neither Gerald Ford not Ronald Reagan securing a majority of delegates in advance, but Ford, the incumbent appointed president, entered the convention with the lead and he won the nomination on the first ballot.
Eight years earlier, Richard Nixon had a plurality, but not a majority, of the delegates ahead of his convention, but he too won the nomination on the first ballot.
When was the last time a Republican presidential candidate went into the convention as the frontrunner, only to have the party nominate someone else? In the modern primary era, it hasn’t happened at all – the candidate who received the most delegates through primaries and caucuses has always prevailed at the convention.

Kasich can point to conventions that pre-date the modern primary era, but the result is a misleading picture.

* Update: Over the course of the day, I talked to a few folks with a background in political conventions to get a better sense of what Kasich was referring to. The argument seems rooted in the fact that, in the pre-primary era, contested conventions were the norm, but there were “frontrunners” based on delegates chosen at state conventions who did well on the first ballot, but not well enough to win the party’s nomination. It led to “underdogs” who eventually overcame the top contender.
Mark Casper noted, for example, that in 1920, Warren Harding fared poorly on the first ballot, but eventually won the Republican nod (and later the presidency, in a historic landslide).

It’s a fair point, and I’ve edited some of the above text to clarify matters. But the broader point remains the same: there is no modern precedent for a candidate competing in primaries and caucuses, coming up far short, and then winning the nomination anyway.