Politics & Policy

‘Stolen Delegates’? Trump Is Living in 1952

Senator Robert Taft (Library of Congress)

Donald Trump in recent weeks has made a lot of noise about how the system for selecting delegates is “rigged” against him. Several states, most notably Colorado, have been the object of his ire. His complaint? That the will of the voters is being thwarted. Trump is not the first Republican nominee to accuse state officials of chicanery. Others, however, have had a case.

In 1952, the presidential nomination came down to questions over the legitimacy of delegates from five states, including Texas. Events dubbed the “Texas Steal” of 1952 are a genuine instance of chicanery by party officials and show how wide of the mark Trump’s accusations are.    

The race for the Republican nomination in 1952 came down to two viable candidates who represented different directions for the GOP. Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, a conservative, had a solid base in the Midwest. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was a celebrity candidate with national appeal. He had support from New York governor Thomas Dewey, the 1944 and 1948 nominee and leader of the moderate Republicans.

Only a handful of states held primary elections in the 1950s. Most state parties chose national-convention delegates in a hierarchical system of closed meetings. Procedures varied from state to state, but their general tendency was to move from the bottom up. Precinct meetings selected delegates to the county convention. County conventions selected them for the state convention. And the state convention chose them for the national convention. Common voters who wanted their voice heard attended a precinct meeting, which was open to any party member living in the designated geographical area.

Any serious candidate had to be involved in this process early on to have a chance at the nomination. Both Taft and Eisenhower had first-rate campaign organizations at the national level, run by long-standing GOP operatives who had extensive regional networks. They worked with friendly state and local leaders to first select, and then elect, delegates who would remain loyal to their candidate through multiple ballots. This was how the nomination was won.

Texas was pivotal for both camps because it had a relatively large number of delegates and a small number of Republican voters. It was an easy state to control. Most Texas GOP officials backed Taft and were determined to have the state’s delegates to the convention vote for him, even though Eisenhower was overwhelmingly popular in Texas. Eisenhower’s campaign in Texas was well funded and well organized because major oil interests there backed him. It was the most competitive fight over delegates that Republicans had seen in Texas since the end of Reconstruction. 

Colorado in 2016 held precinct committee meetings exactly like those of the 1950s.

Traditionally, the Texas Republican bosses did determine the outcomes of the delegate-selection process, but 1952 was different, for two reasons. First, new state legislation mandated that party precinct meetings be public and that their date, time, and location be published well in advance. In 1948, the chairman of the Bexar County GOP faced a challenge over his leadership and tried to hold the precinct meetings in secret. It took two court orders before he published the details of the meetings, and then only on the day they were held — a tactic that had been fairly common. The new law meant that party meetings would be open and subject to public scrutiny.

The second reason that 1952 was different was Eisenhower’s staggering level of popular support, which was uncommon for a Republican in the solid South. Unprepared for the Eisenhower backers who flooded the precinct meetings, the Texas leadership panicked. That led to some shady dealings that would make a smoke-filled room look like a meeting of an Ohio Rotary club.

Henry Zweifel, a member of the Republican National Committee, chaired a precinct meeting at his home and found his living room overrun by strangers who elected a slate of Ike supporters. He then went outside with his regular associates, convened a second meeting in his front yard, and voted in a Taft slate. That scene was repeated across the state and ultimately doomed the Taft campaign nationally.

As the meetings proceeded from the precinct to the county level, things got further out of hand. With two groups of delegates present, county conventions had to determine which to seat. The party insiders who chaired the meetings seated their Taft-supporting colleagues by overwhelming margins over Eisenhower supporters, saying they were protecting the party from outside influence, as the Eisenhower voters were more likely not to have participated in party activities before and were not real Republicans. The optics were terrible. At the state convention, the Eisenhower campaign challenged the rulings made at the county meetings and, when unsuccessful, convened a rival convention across the street. Rather than work out a deal, Texas sent two competing delegate slates to the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

The magic number for the nomination in 1952 was 604 delegates. Going in to Chicago, neither candidate had enough to win on the first ballot. It was so close that whichever of the two leading candidates, Eisenhower and Taft, won the contested delegates from Texas and four other states would win the nomination. The decision fell to the credentials committee, which was stacked with Taft partisans and voted to seat a majority of Taft delegates.

The Eisenhower campaign then played its last card and took its case to the court of public opinion. Eisenhower surrogates had been decrying the “Texas Steal” for weeks, arguing that Texas voters had been disenfranchised by the party bosses. In Chicago, they asked that the whole convention, minus the contested delegates, to vote to overturn the credentials committee and seat Eisenhower’s delegates. The move was unprecedented and ultimately worked, largely because the actions of the Texas GOP bosses were indefensible. Eisenhower’s delegates were seated, and he won the nomination on the first ballot.

While the Trump campaign is attempting a similar gambit today, it should be clear that the circumstances are in no way comparable. Colorado held precinct committee meetings exactly like those of the 1950s. The meetings were scheduled for March 1, and each one was open to anyone who had registered Republican before January 4 and lived in the precinct since February 1. No one attempted to hold the meetings in secret and, to my knowledge, in no precinct did voters elect rival slates of delegates. Apparently Trump supporters did not show up in significant numbers.

If talk of “stolen delegates” and “rigged elections” still persists when Republicans convene in Cleveland in July, neither the credentials committee nor the convention as a whole should dignify the allegations. All delegates have followed their local procedures to win their seats. In some states, the Trump campaign has not organized adequately for its purposes. For an illustration of delegate theft, see Texas in 1952. Look for the same in 2016 and you won’t find it.

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