An elaborate rules change that would give Republican delegates the freedom to vote their conscience could be Never Trump Republicans final stand against the man who is turning their world upside down.
If allowed to vote how they want, these Republicans argue, delegates to the GOP Convention next month in Cleveland aren’t bound to support Trump.
It’s an idea just so crazy it might work.
Except it hasn’t and didn’t when it was employed nearly 36 years ago by Democrats supporting Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy over then-President Jimmy Carter.
Back then it was known as the “Robot Rule.”
Kennedy arrived at the Democratic Convention in August 1980 trailing President Carter by 700 delegates. Kennedy’s only path to the nomination was to unbind the delegates Carter had won in the primaries so they could honorably vote for Kennedy on the first ballot.
“It was called the robot rule,” recalled Mark Siegel, a Kennedy ally. “The buttons we made for the floor, and the signs, were of a black robot in a red circle with a red “No” slash, like a don’t walk sign.”
How the delegates voted on the robot rule became the test vote of the convention on the first night when party rules are always adopted.
“The thought was that there were hundreds of union delegates, including the NEA (National Education Association), who if they were free to vote their conscience would vote for Kennedy,” says Siegel.
The prolonged Iranian hostage crisis was taking its toll on Carter, and Kennedy had come into the August Convention buoyed by wins in California and New Jersey on the last day of the primaries. Democratic elites like super lawyer Edward Bennett Williams and New York Governor Hugh Carey floated Ed Muskie as an alternative, who was then serving as Carter’s Secretary of State.
“We had the argument that people should not be bound to vote for a candidate regardless of what circumstances occur after the primaries,” says Bob Shrum, Kennedy strategist and speechwriter. “What if someone committed a crime, for example? The rule was too abstract, and it was clear he (Carter) would lose to Reagan.”
Carter led in the polls all summer, and his aides have a very different view of when exactly the race was lost to Ronald Reagan, and it wasn’t until the final weekend.
To most everybody’s surprise, Carter easily prevailed in that critical Monday night vote, ending the effort to free the delegates to vote their conscience.
“Our delegates were people we went out and got. We knew where their loyalties were, and we stayed in touch with them. We nurtured them and informed them and babysat them so there wouldn’t be any erosion,” says Les Francis, who oversaw Carter’s delegate tracking operation.
But unlike Carter, Trump may be more vulnerable to a rules change, since his campaign has not had near that level of organization.
“My bet is they may not have done due diligence babysitting them through weeks and months, so it’s a guess as to how strong those delegates will be. In ’80, we didn’t take any chances,” says Francis.
Kennedy withdrew from the race immediately after the robot vote failed, and the next night delivered his famous “the dream will never die speech” in support of a minority plank on jobs. His words electrified the convention, and endure in the history books. It was supposed to be his acceptance speech.
“We lost the vote Monday night, and that was that,” says Shrum. Not quite. Carter needed Kennedy’s support to unify the party, and Kennedy dodged the coveted image.
“He and I had practiced in the hotel suite raising his arm,” Shrum told the Daily Beast.
But the obligatory arms aloft and hands clasped photo of the nominee and his challenger to signal unity on the last night of the convention never happened.
Kennedy arrived at Madison Square Garden long after Carter had finished speaking. Shrum says they were caught in a traffic jam, and that New York Mayor Koch had taken away their police escort. “He didn’t like us, he was a vindictive sort.”
Waiting for Kennedy, the Carter forces filled the time bringing so many elected officials to the stage that when Kennedy arrived, it was so crowded Carter had trouble finding him. Network cameras recorded the awkward maneuvering until the two men finally edged together for what would only be a handshake. “It just didn’t feel right” to do more, Kennedy told Shrum.
The Carter camp has a less benign view of events—and are still not quite over what they saw as a slight.
Jerry Rafshoon, Carter’s media advisor, says that network footage of the evening in the Carter Library confirms that Kennedy didn’t leave his hotel room until fifteen minutes after Carter had stopped talking. (Shrum says convention planners expected 45 minutes of revelry after Carter’s speech, but the demonstration petered out much sooner.)
“We were never worried about coming out of the convention, nothing there was going to hurt us,” Rafshoon told the Daily Beast. “What hurt us was Kennedy being a sore loser. He didn’t come to the stage soon enough.”
The lessons for rebellious delegates today, if Kennedy with his base in the party couldn’t pull it off, are there enough “faithless” Trump delegates that could vote to unbind themselves and throw open the convention? And if they did manage to dislodge Trump, wouldn’t they risk an even worse situation?
“If Kennedy had somehow or other gotten the nomination, we would not have had a wholesale walkout of Democrats,” says Shrum. “Kennedy was a very serious alternative, and they don’t have one.”
Carter had refused to debate Kennedy in the primaries, saying he needed to stay in the White House to deal with the hostages. Dubbed the Rose Garden strategy, it helped him get re-nominated, but doomed him in the fall. “After you spend every waking hour for months (to free the hostages), people start asking why isn’t it done?” says Shrum.
In the end, Kennedy did campaign for Carter, and Carter lost to Reagan by almost ten points. The Kennedy challenge didn’t help, but it was minor compared to the damage Carter inflicted upon himself with a poor debate showing one week before the election. Countering Shrum’s claim that it was clear Carter was going to lose by the August convention, Rafshoon says they were ahead by 2 to 3 points until the October 28th debate, and then they were 2-3 points behind.
It’s hard to justify under any democratic theory taking the nomination away from Trump, who as he says did win fair and square. Accountability now rests with those who indulged his hateful rhetoric. “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside,” President Kennedy said in his inaugural address. He meant foreign dictators, but the words apply to today’s GOP.