Lessons from the last GOP contested convention: Reagan in 1976

The last time Republicans traveled to their summer convention without a clear nominee to be crowned, Illinois native Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford. Operating outside the Kansas City convention hall in makeshift headquarters — a trailer full of landline phones — was now-state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican who was part of Reagan's advance team in 1976.

Harris was in charge of communications, helping delegate hunters as they tried to wrestle enough delegates into Reagan's camp to win him the nomination. The frenetic dash to rally support fell short, but Harris reflects fondly on the experience decades later.

There's a lot of talk about a contested GOP convention this summer, but not many people have been at one. It hasn't happened in decades.

But the realities of today, from the different primary system to the technology that would render his trailer unnecessary, would make a 2016 contest pretty different, says Harris, now a delegate candidate for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “There really is no last time,” he said. “This is going to be a whole new ballgame if we do go to a brokered convention.”

Here and now

Both Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have in recent days entertained the idea of a contested convention as a means of winning the GOP nomination over delegate-leader Donald Trump. First, they'd have to keep him from winning enough committed delegates to win the nomination outright. Trump now has 458 of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination, but the other three candidates have a combined 564, according to The Associated Press.

Harris said the primary system in 1976 left more opportunity for candidates to make a move at the conventions. Recently, of course, the conventions serve in part as a victory party for the party's clear nominee and a springboard toward the November election.

Illinois delegates who are elected Tuesday are bound to vote for the candidate they're aligned with on the first ballot at a convention. After that, things get a little more complicated.

Delegates aren't a homogeneous bunch and have a broad spectrum of political interests. Who they would vote for on subsequent ballots could be the result of politicking, deal-making or any number of considerations that even happen before the convention.

“Delegates represent what the party represents,” Harris said.

This week, Cruz delegate candidate C. Steven Tucker of Roselle confirmed he'd vote for the Texas senator on the first ballot if he's elected even though the Tea Party leader has been a loud critic of Cruz and would likely vote for Trump on a second ballot.

Reality check

If Trump sweeps Tuesday's primaries — including picking up some delegates here — he'll make it a lot harder for the other candidates to make a case for a convention fight. That would render a lot of this discussion meaningless.

But would the speculation and hype end? We wouldn't dare predict.

Holy moly

Because the Illinois Republican primary winner doesn't get all the state's delegates, voters here are likely to elect at least a few backers of candidates who don't win at the top of the ballot.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's Illinois leader, state Sen. Mike Connelly of Lisle, said it might help that his candidate has a lot of delegates on the ballot that people will recognize and might be more likely to vote for.

“You can vote for us for delegate and vote for your favorite candidate in the other part of the ballot,” he said.

Connelly says, like all the candidates, Rubio would prefer to win outright rather than deal with a contested convention.

“I think March 15 will dictate that,” he said. “Because of Florida and Ohio, those are Rubio's and Kasich's strongholds.”

“It would be just like electing a pope,” Connelly said, laughing. “We'd just keep going ... and then there's white smoke coming out of the building and we've got a nominee.”

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  David Harris Bill Zars/
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