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I was at the last contested Republican convention. Here’s what to expect at Trump’s.

My first Republican National Convention was in 1952. This year, the party may finally fall apart.

Donald Trump has ignited a political storm. It is sweeping Republicans into a ferocious state that will climax in July at their national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, when there will almost certainly be a fight to stop Trump from becoming the 2016 Republican nominee, despite a likely plurality of delegates.

Americans will watch a spectacle like the ones Republicans put on in 1952, 1964, and 1976.

Except for 1984, I attended every Republican national convention from 1952 through 1996 and was on the floor or in committee rooms for the most heated confrontations.

None were much fun. Some were frightening, some downright dangerous.

Passions rule at such times. Delegates, candidates, their followers, and party leaders believe they are deciding the nation's future.

Overwrought phrases like, "The most important task in the history of the nation faces us today," and, "America will be great again when our nation elects our great candidate," dominate the discourse.

Only occasionally is there an eloquent or meaningful speech.

Super-conflicted conventions over issues and candidates turn into vitriolic confrontations that sear participants' emotions. The winners are often overbearing and the losers deeply angry and depressed.

Such feelings are not easily salvaged by so-called unity statements if the battle for the nominee is harsh, ugly, and seen not to be fair. In such cases, a nominee may lose the enthusiastic support needed from party leaders to win in the fall.

Enter Trump, who has broken every civil political rule since he started his campaign last June. Follow that with Ted Cruz, who has not endeared himself to his Senate colleagues. Many believe he is too difficult, too stubborn, mean, and iconoclastic to be president.

John Kasich remains in the race as well, and may become the nominee if the convention can't agree on either Trump or Cruz. His policy positions on domestic issues are closer to Cruz's, but he is viewed as a peacemaker, not an instigator like Trump. But there are nearly four months before the convention begins, and by then Kasich's reputation could be as tarnished as the other two contenders, opening the way for a dark-horse choice.

This makes for a volatile situation that is different from any of the earlier contentious Republican conventions. Neither Trump nor Cruz has the endearing affection and respect of the majority of Republicans usually exhibited toward a nominee.

In 1952, supporters of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft held deeply different positions on international and domestic policies. Yet the majority of Republicans respected the two men. Neither Eisenhower nor Taft used crude, bigoted language in public as Trump has done.

Ideology divided the 1964 convention. Barry Goldwater and his movement conservatives defeated the Eastern establishment moderates. Despite Goldwater's well-known "extremism in the defense of liberty" words in his acceptance speech, he was liked as an individual and was not a Trump-style provocateur.

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Gerald Ford wins the 1976 Republican nomination. (Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)

President Gerald Ford and California Gov. Ronald Reagan did not use bigoted and fascist rhetoric to inflame the 1976 convention. Heated battles were fought over issues. The majority of delegates respected both candidates even as most took sides on the platform.

Trump has upended the Republican Party's institutional foundations, civil processes, and procedures and has degraded acceptable political language. He has opened a Pandora's box containing suppressed hatred, anxieties, and fear, and is following in the tradition of George Wallace and Joe McCarthy.

Trump's backlash policies toward immigrants, people of color, women, and Muslims are being debated in Republican county and state meetings where convention delegates are being selected.

What happens at the convention is anybody's guess. The campaigns make their judgments about which delegates will be the most steadfast weeks before the convention opens.

Traditionally candidates have tried to predict a potential delegate's loyalty by the quality of his or her participation in the party. Devotion to the Republican Party and its ability to win in the fall may remain the significant criteria for Kasich.

But in Trump's case, potential delegates must exhibit a steadfastness to Trump the person, regardless of Trump's policies. For example, the delegate may disagree with Trump on keeping most Muslims out of the country but will ignore that personal disagreement and vote the way Trump's campaign dictates.

Of the three candidates, Cruz's delegates will be the most ideologically in sync with their candidate's policies. Cruz delegates will be nearly the opposite from Trump's in that while they back their man, it is positions on issues they support that will keep them loyal.


This year's conflict resembles the 1952 convention fight between Eisenhower's forces — led by New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey — and those for Taft.

Eisenhower and Taft were reasonable men, and their calm personalities played an important part in keeping their convention from ending in disaster. Trump's volatile personality will have the opposite effect.

Bad blood existed between the supporters of Taft and Eisenhower, like the acidity developing between Trump and his opponents. Taft was a three-time loser beaten for the Republican nomination in 1940,1944, and 1948.

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The floor of the 1952 Republican Convention. (Transcandental Graphics/Getty Images)

Many Republicans disliked Dewey, who had been the Republican candidate in 1944 and 1948, for losing in 1948 to President Harry Truman. Some Taft Republicans hated Dewey.

When the Republican convention opened in Chicago on July 7, 1952, Taft's forces controlled its machinery. Taft led in committed delegates but not enough to be nominated.  Some 70 were in dispute.

Rules and credentials were the center of the struggle even as policy issues fueled intense emotion. There was even a bitter two-hour debate over which rules the convention should follow.

I was on the floor of the convention during this debate. My father was a Utah Taft delegate. I was a volunteer teenager for Taft along with Yvonne Romney, the young daughter of the Taft western regional chairman; the campaign gave us signs reading, "Utah Bees Buzz For Taft."  We were told to march in front of the New York delegates, who were seated on the convention floor directly facing the speaker's podium.

As we innocently paraded in front of Dewey and his delegates, Illinois Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, in a booming voice from the podium, roused the Taft delegates and pointed his finger down at Dewey, shouting: "We followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat. Don't do this to us."

The convention erupted. Delegates booed, rising to their feet and screaming epithets at Dewey. Republicans' pent-up bitterness over the 1948 loss overflowed, resulting in long, heartrending screeching.

I too was overwhelmed and vehemently waved my sign at the New Yorkers. A man, at least a foot taller than my 5 feet, leaped out of the New York delegation, yelling, "Hey, girlie, how much did they pay you for that?"

I was furious. The idea that anyone would pay me to do my patriotic duty was more than I could stand. I hit him with the sign, shouting something about how dare you say such things.

My Taft buddies and a security guard escorted me gently off the floor. I was okay, more angry than frightened. Not until later when I learned of other violent incidents — less modest than mine — did I realize how dangerous the convention floor had become.

The next day, after a long battle over whose delegates would be recognized, the balloting began.

At the end of the first ballot, Eisenhower was nine votes short of the required number for nomination. The governors of Minnesota and Maryland changed their votes for Eisenhower. Dewey and his team had again defeated Taft.

The convention made Ike's nomination unanimous when Earl Warren, then the governor of California, delivered his state's delegation to the next president of the United States.

The key to Ike's victory was first-rate legal and tactical organization, as well as a candidate that was perceived to be a unifier.

This year, a Republican candidate with similar assets may be the Republican nominee.

Looking toward Cleveland this year, the present 112-member rules committee has the power to change the rules that govern the convention and to disregard the authority that binds delegates to state and local voters' preferences.

A bound delegate is only bound as far as the convention accepts that vote. Over the years, when a delegate pledged to a candidate has changed her mind, some campaigns have considered legal action.

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Donald Trump holds a rally in Tampa, Florida. (Joe Raedie/Getty Images)

A political party's nominating convention has historically been an entity unto itself. The convention follows the rules it sets when the convention opens, as was so clearly demonstrated in Chicago in 1952.

Members of the rules committee won't officially be selected until the last primaries are completed June 7, but already the candidates' campaigns are looking for delegates who will be loyal and can operate under great stress.

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus will appoint the chair and co-chair of the rules committee. He will have little official say over the committee's decisions. He will be influential, though, in determining who gets tickets, committee rooms and staff, schedules and expenses.

Delegates — whether bound or not — have been changing their minds since conventions began, and could do so in Cleveland. They have not been punished legally for such action, but if they switch to the losing candidate, they may find themselves demoted within the party structure and shunned by former allies. If they back the winner, losing candidates don't take legal action against disloyal delegates. There would be no gain except a loser's petty revenge.

A campaign that contemplates legal action against a delegate doesn't understand the way a convention works. Bringing legal action infringes upon a delegate's right to decide how she shall vote and would lead to an issue that would create even more tension within a party clearly disintegrating. If the convention has reached collapse, then the convention's goal of organizing to elect its nominee president has been lost. A convention is supposed to be a joyous occasion celebrating the qualities of the ticket and exciting the party faithful to work hard for the task ahead.

This is why — as far as I know — no Republican presidential campaign has ever taken legal action against a delegate who changed her mind.


Trump will likely have the most pledged delegates as the convention's preliminary activities begin, but he will not arrive in Cleveland with the same kind of respect that Republicans gave to Nixon at three conventions or two each for Reagan, Bush Sr., and George W.

Trump's campaign has stirred up anger among rank-and-file Republicans of the sort not seen since the 1964 Goldwater convention.

Barry Goldwater had enough delegates to win on the first ballot when Republicans gathered in San Francisco on July 13, 1964. His campaign strategist and manager F. Clifton White had been a campaign operative for Ike in 1952. In San Francisco, White built a communication system that kept constant track of the Goldwater delegates and observed those from other camps. He wanted no major rules changes like 1952, and there weren't any.

Even with all of White's precautions to keep the Goldwater delegates in line, arguments erupted on the floor.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had withdrawn as a candidate after losing to Goldwater in the California primary, was to speak to the convention in favor of a platform amendment denouncing extremism. The amendment linked the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Communist Party.

When Rockefeller stepped to the podium, before he could speak boos rang out. Smiling, he shouted, "This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen." The tumult increased when he linked the John Birch Society with the "infiltration and takeover of established political organizations by communist and Nazi methods."

Tying the John Birch Society to communists and Nazis hit a sore spot. Some delegates were friends or members of the John Birch Society. They were also ardent Goldwater fans.

What White had feared had happened. He was unable to control the fury that the Goldwater candidacy had unleashed with its appeal to bigots.

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Ku Klux Klan members demonstrate in support for Sen. Barry Goldwater at the 1964 convention. (UniversalImageGroup/Getty Images)

I was on the floor working for ABC News. The catcalls and shouting reminded me of photos from the early 1930s newsreels of Mussolini and Hitler, and of my experiences in Chicago in 1952. At the time it didn't seem as disastrous to the Republicans as 1952, mainly because White seemed to have control of the party machinery and the Goldwater team was unified.

It didn't turn out that way.

After Goldwater won the nomination, his campaign made only a mild attempt to unify the party. Goldwater demoted White, and in November President Lyndon Johnson won 45 of 50 states and 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest percentage in the nation's history. Americans believed Goldwater was too extreme to be president.

Republican leaders across the country ran their own campaigns. Down-ballot Republican losses were catastrophic.

Even in Utah, a usually reliable Republican state, Johnson won. Democrats defeated my Republican father, Mitchell Melich, running for governor, and Ernest Wilkinson, the president of Brigham Young University, the US Senate GOP candidate.


The next pre-convention phase has begun.

State parties are selecting the people who will be delegates. In some cases where a candidate has won the primary, caucus, or convention, that candidate has already selected his choices. The names of the delegates are publicly known.

All delegations automatically include the state party chair and co-chair and the national committee members. They often become members of the convention's platform, rules, credentials, and other committees and will soon be meeting for preliminary planning.

Controlling the national party machinery is an important step toward winning a nomination but doesn't necessarily guarantee victory.  Taft's people controlled the apparatus in 1952; Goldwater's campaign managed most of convention business; Ford as president guided the machinery and used the official party organization to beat back a challenge from Reagan.

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Ronald Reagan on the floor of the 1976 convention. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Priebus manages, with approval from the Republican National Committee, the national party's governing body. If Trump is to win the nomination, his campaign will need to work with Priebus.

According to New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns, Trump established a relationship with Priebus when Trump considered seriously running for president four years ago. Trump changed his practice of giving modestly to both parties and since then has contributed substantial money to the RNC.

If Trump is to win on the first ballot, he will need Priebus's cooperation. If Trump doesn't have a majority on the first ballot, Ben Ginsburg, Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign counsel, writes in Politico that "[a]t that point, nearly three-quarters of the delegates — more than 1,800 or the 2,472 — become instantly unbound."

This could happen before the first candidate ballot on a vote from the rules committee on the convention's opening day. An anti-Trump vote over rules could have the effect of freeing candidates to vote as they wished.

How much influence will the RNC have on these unbound delegates? Will Republican governors and members of the US House and Senate from these unbound states determine the outcome? Will Gov. Kasich's favorite-son delegation be the kingmaker?

Will Mitt Romney and George W. Bush have any significant influence? Will they be able to convince delegates to switch from Trump? If so, will there be an attempt to draft House Speaker Paul Ryan?

Republicans running for Congress, state legislature, and governor have a stake in who is at the top of the ticket and are a major factor in the negotiations for delegate positions and committee posts. If they believe Trump will hurt their own elections, they will try to stop him. And, conversely, if they believe Trump can help them, he will get their support.

In the heat of the coverage of this nomination marathon, many have forgotten that it is the party that picks its nominee, not the public.

There have been open primaries and caucuses that allowed independents and, in some cases, Democrats to vote in Republican contests. In Cleveland, most delegates will have a long history with the Republican Party.  (Interestingly, exit polls indicate that many of Trump's voters are lapsed Republicans who have come out to vote after having not done so in years.)

After he won, Eisenhower went to Taft's campaign suite to shake Taft's hand. I was standing behind the two as they talked to the press. I was small, very young. No one made me move. In a fit of patriotism, I was proud that Eisenhower and Taft had come together for the good of America. Little did I understand the hearts of men.

On the drive back to Utah, my dad explained that the Taft supporters, including him, were disappointed and angry. Still, dad was a state senator and would support Eisenhower because he was the Republican nominee, and Ike would be better than a Democrat.

Eventually, Taft came around. In September he met with Eisenhower and received assurances that he would not increase the budget, would reduce taxes, and would maintain the Taft-Hartley law. International issues would essentially be left to Eisenhower.

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Sen. Barry Goldwater accepts the 1964 Republican nomination. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Many Taft people never forgot that Ike's people had "stolen" the nomination they believed rightfully belonged to Robert Taft. Those who were at the Goldwater convention hadn't forgotten the unfairness of 1952.

Trump is not Taft. Trump is a bigoted, spoiled billionaire who seems to think more about himself than about the country. If he loses, based on his behavior in this campaign, he won't be decent and rational like Taft.

Who knows how Trump will behave if he is the nominee? Will he be vindictive against those who fought him? Will he welcome them into his campaign?

He is no Eisenhower, Goldwater, or Ford. Perhaps his model will be Richard Nixon.

If the Republican Party stoops to give its nomination to Trump, women and men who have worked for the party for years will not campaign for him. They will stay home or throw their energies into electing Republican candidates running for lesser office.

Despite endorsements from Gov. Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, and other prominent Republicans, Trump is about to learn about the reality of American politics.

He will be surprised to find that bullying, ridicule, and hatred toward those not of his gender, color, ethnicity, or religion will not win the hearts of the majority of Republicans or other Americans.

After nearly a year of listening to candidate Trump, we know the quality of his character. His expected efforts to move away from bigotry and nastiness if he is nominated will not fool us.

When the November election is over, he will be known as the Republican presidential candidate who suffered the greatest defeat in his party's history.

Tanya Melich left the Republican Party in 1998 over its official treatment of women. She is the author of the 1996 book The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report From Behind the Lines. She is known as the first person to coin the phrase "Republican war against women," which has become a staple of political rhetoric.


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