April 19th, 2024


What Trump can learn from Reagan and the '76 delegate fight

Marc A. Thiessen

By Marc A. Thiessen The Washington Post

Published April 12, 2016

As we approach what may be the first contested GOP convention since 1976, Donald Trump is complaining that Ted Cruz is using "crooked shenanigans" to win delegates and deny him the Republican presidential nomination. But Cruz is doing exactly what Ronald Reagan did in '76 in his insurgent campaign for the GOP nomination -- running a well-organized ground game designed to win every available delegate at state and local conventions across the country. Trump's failure to respond with a ground game of his own could cost him the nomination.

Like Trump today, the Ford team complained about Reagan's tactics. As Craig Shirley recounts in his masterful history of the 1976 campaign, Ford's chief delegate hunter, James Baker, complained to Time magazine that Ford's people were being "out hustled" by Reagan, declaring "These Reagan people don't care; they're absolutely ruthless. They want all of it." Reagan traveled across the country addressing state and local conventions, and called uncommitted delegates inviting them to private dinners (adding "By the way, do you mind if I bring along John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart?").

Unlike Trump today, Ford responded in kind, inviting unbound delegates to the Oval Office and sending operatives to state conventions to flip Reagan delegates to his side. In a handwritten letter recently released by the Jesse Helms Center, Reagan wrote Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) -- who had saved his campaign by delivering North Carolina for Reagan -- about his frustrations with the Ford team's tactics. "I've never been so disgusted in all my life," Reagan told Helms. "In every convention the W.H. gang are there manipulating, trying to get the rules changed, etc. ... Don't get me wrong, I still think we'll take him. But Jesse it almost seems as if they are out to win a convention instead of an election."

Ted Cruz is out-hustling Trump. On Saturday, Cruz spoke at Colorado's state GOP convention and shut Trump out, winning all 34 of the state's pledged delegates. Trump complained: "There was no voting. I didn't go out there to make a speech or anything." Well, whose fault is that?

Trump also didn't give a speech in North Dakota, but Cruz did -- and won 18 of 25 delegates. In Louisiana, a state Trump won by just 3.6 percentage points, the Wall Street Journal reports that Cruz "may wind up with as many as 10 more delegates from the state" than Trump. Why? Because Cruz successfully courted the state's five unbound delegates and won over five Marco Rubio delegates who became free agents after the senator from Florida suspended his campaign.

By picking up handfuls of delegates in these and other states, and beating Trump in key primaries such as Wisconsin, Cruz hopes to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot. Then Cruz is taking another page out of the Reagan playbook. As Shirley notes, in '76, the Reagan team loaded state delegations with Reagan supporters who "although bound on a first ballot at the national convention ... would be freed to vote their individual preference on any subsequent ballots."

Cruz is similarly working to elect delegates who, while bound to support Trump on a first ballot, will support Cruz on subsequent ballots. In Virginia's 9th Congressional District, for example, two of the three delegates elected told The Post that "they would vote for Cruz if voting on a GOP nominee goes into multiple rounds." In Georgia's Coweta County -- which Trump won by 12 percentage points -- Cruz supporters won an estimated 90 percent of the county's delegates to the state and district conventions that will choose Georgia's delegates at the Republican National Convention.

In Michigan, Cruz's campaign believes it has elected its supporters to at least five of the 25 delegate slots pledged to Trump. It has been a similar story in South Carolina, Indiana, Tennessee, South Dakota and other states.

There is nothing wrong with this. Cruz is fighting for every available delegate according to the rules, just as Reagan did. And who is Trump to complain? Trump defends his businesses' multiple bankruptcies by saying he had simply "taken advantage of the laws of the country" that are available to all Americans. Well, Cruz is taking advantage of the rules of the state parties that are available to all the candidates.

If Trump can't compete, he has no one to blame but himself. Back in February, after losing Iowa to Cruz, Trump admitted he "never realized" the importance of building a field organization. But instead of going out and building that field organization, he has done the opposite. Politico reports that "Since March, [Trump] has been laying off field staff en masse around the country." Trump brags about how rich he is, but he has run his campaign on the cheap, relying on provocative tweets and his massive advantage in free media to win primaries. He's now learning that Twitter and free media can't win delegates.

Trump likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan. Well, if he doesn't stop complaining and start campaigning, he may end up as Reagan did in '76 -- the runner-up.

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