Now is when we start hearing that the GOP establishment will pull out all the stops to keep Donald Trump from garnering the nomination. Scenarios range from one of the remaining candidates, such as Ted Cruz, besting Trump in the remaining primaries as the field is winnowed, to a brokered convention where a dark horse (e.g., Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan) emerges. The problem for an ABT proponent is that the history is daunting. Brokered conventions have not occurred since 1956.
Candidates relying on late-breaking momentum generally end up broken. Two former NYC mayors, Lindsay in 1972 and Giuliani in 2008 placed their bets on a breakthrough in the somewhat late Florida primary, only to find that by then the field had already passed them by.
Late entrants, such as Jerry Brown and Frank Church in 1976, were highly competitive in the late primaries but could not come close to overcoming the lead early entrant Jimmy Carter had amassed. Other candidates entering the race after primary season (William Scranton in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1968) registered even less of a blip.
To be sure, there have been comebacks by pre-existing candidates, but none that succeeded by generating victories this late in the cycle. For example John McCain in 2008 was counted out of the race, but propelled by surprise wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, coasted to the nomination. Note, those two primaries were relatively early in the political calendar. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton in 1992 was the embodiment of the “Comeback Kid”, but he earned that on the basis of a strong New Hampshire showing, again an early event in the calendar.
Only two candidates in the modern era overcame early stumbles to come reasonably close. In 1976, Reagan lost the first six primaries in a row. It was not until North Carolina on March 23 that he posted his first victory, and took 11 of the remaining 22 contests from that point forward. In so doing he battled President Ford to a near draw, yet came up achingly short at the convention. However, even their closest supporters would be hard pressed to unequivocally state that Cruz, Rubio or Kasich are on a par with the Gipper when it comes to campaign ability.
The only late bloomer to succeed was Hubert Humphrey in 1968. After LBJ’s withdrawal, Humphrey entered the race too late to meaningfully compete in the remaining primaries, which were contested by Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. However in the pre-reform days when what we today call super-delegates controlled the process, and with the chasm caused by the Vietnam War, Humphrey did prevail in securing the nomination. It should be noted, Humphrey’s late success came with a tremendous cost: the party was so divided that Humphrey’s general election campaign remained stalled for critical months, arguably costing him the presidency.
What does all this mean? In the above eight campaigns relying on late success, on either the Democratic or Republican side, only once (Humphrey) was a candidate successful in relying on late momentum, and at that there were extenuating circumstances. Though one thing the 2016 campaign has demonstrated thus far is to expect the unexpected.
Kenneth T. Zemsky is the author of the recently published novel The Nation’s Hope, about the 1965 NYC mayoral campaign. He is also a managing director at AndersenTax and teaches constitutional law at Rutgers. You can follow him at KennethTZemsky.com.