Uncommitted GOP Delegates Are About To Become The New Political 'It Girls'

In 1976, the last time there was a contested GOP convention, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan gave these folks constant attention.

03/18/2016 04:17 pm ET
William Fitz-Patrick/AP, White House, Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library
On Aug. 19, 1976, the closing night of the GOP convention in Kansas City, Missouri, President Gerald Ford thanked Ronald Reagan for his remarks. Reagan had unsuccessfully run for the Republican nomination.

Since Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) won the primary in his home state and made Donald Trump's fight for the nomination a bit tougher, Republicans are increasingly getting ready for the prospect of a contested convention.

The last time this happened to the GOP was in 1976, when neither President Gerald Ford nor former California Gov. Ronald Reagan had a majority of delegates heading into the August convention in Kansas City, Missouri. That meant that the votes of delegates -- and in particular, the precious individuals who were still undecided -- became very important. 

And those 150 unpledged delegates suddenly found themselves the most-sought after people in politics, facing constant media attention and personal attention from the candidates. It's the same type of treatment that the uncommitted delegates this year are already beginning to receive. 

Most delegates arrive at a convention required to vote for the candidate who won their state's primary, at least in the first round of balloting. But others are unbound or uncommitted. Some of those are from states where the winning candidate dropped out, and some are simply allowed to vote however they want. And this year, like in 1976, these delegates are in high demand. 

In his book Invisible Bridge, historian Rick Perlstein looked at some of the perks these individuals received:

One obscure Republican official from Suffolk County, New York, emerged from a ten-minute audience announcing that the Leader of the Free World had agreed to take a closer look at the problems of his local sewage district. And when the queen of England arrived at the White House for a sumptuous state dinner, the gentleman the president chose to seat her next to was Clarke Reed, chairman of the largest uncommitted delegation -- Mississippi's, with thirty convention votes. 

"I've gotten several calls but I can't say I've really gotten any pressure," uncommitted South Carolina delegate Sherry Shealy Martschink told UPI in June 1976. She added, however, that she had been invited to the White House for a dinner with the King of Spain. 

A political cartoon that ran on June 21 of that year captured some of the attention uncommitted delegates were getting from the president.

Google News Archive
The Victoria Advocate, June 21, 1976.

Reagan didn't have the perks of the presidency, but he still gave uncommitted delegates plenty of TLC -- much as the candidates will need to do this year as well. 

On July 15, Reagan spent "all day and much of the evening" at the Penn-Harris Motor Inn in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, meeting in small groups with the state's 36 uncommitted delegates. But at the end of the day, he moved just two people, underscoring the time-consuming nature of the courtship: One person had committed to Reagan, and the second man moved away from Ford.

"I was leaning to Ford. Now I'm straight up and down," delegate James Stein told the Associated Press. "I'm unleaning."

H. Davidson Osgood Jr. of Scarborough, Maine, was another lucky delegate who received all sorts of attention. First, he received a call from the president, during which they talked "at length," according to the Associated Press. He said he felt like Ford would have "gone on for another 15 minutes if I wanted him to." He later received a call from Reagan.

Reagan also used one of his most powerful attributes -- his ability to connect with people through television -- to win over delegates. On July 6, he gave a speech on national television with the express purpose of convincing uncommitted delegates to choose him. 

Google News Archive
The Southeast Missourian, July 6, 1976.

Uncommitted delegates had entire pieces written about them in their local papers. Robin Lambert, a 25-year-old Maine resident, received his ticket to the convention when his boss -- a Ford delegate -- gave up his spot so the young man could go. Lambert, however, decided to back U.S. Secretary of Commerce Elliot Richardson, a man who wasn't even running. That set off a furious lobbying campaign by both the Ford and Reagan camps. From the Bangor Daily News on June 18

Google News Archive
Bangor Daily News, June 18, 1976.

Reagan also struggled to pick up delegates after he promised to name Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.), who was known as a moderate, as his vice president. It was an unusual move by Reagan, since he wasn't even yet the nominee. And the decision likely cost him some uncommitted delegates.

Reagan took Schweiker to Jackson, Mississippi, on Aug. 4, to meet with the state's uncommitted delegation and convince them he wasn't too liberal. It didn't go that well; Reagan delegate coordinator Swan Yerger told the Associated Press that they may have "lost one or two" delegates after the two-hour meeting. 

Keeping track of how many delegates each side had was no easy task for journalists either. Perlstein writes in Invisible Bridge that at one point, there were "more delegates being counted by both sides than would be present at the convention; the psychological gamesmanship had become absurd." 

Ford ultimately won the nomination after the first round of balloting at the convention. Reagan also ended up doing just fine for himself, despite the loss that year. 

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