A mortally wounded presidential nominee, a party that has ripped itself apart

In 1968, the Democratic Party was divided as it had perhaps never been divided before.

A sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, was unpopular and weak in the run up to his re-election and faced dissension from his own party. Many wanted Johnson out, but only Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota — an anti-Vietnam War candidate — ran against him.

McCarthy hoped that, if he could stun the president in the New Hampshire primary, he could knock Johnson out and win. On March 16, McCarthy got what he wanted, getting 42 percent of the vote, losing to President Johnson by only seven points.

Smelling blood in the water, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York — who hated Johnson — decided to throw his hat in the ring four days later. The open rebellion had begun in earnest.

Two weeks later, Johnson announced to the country that he would not run for another term.

And just like that, the more than three decade-old New Deal coalition assembled by President Franklin Roosevelt smashed into a million pieces.

McCarthy now owned the young, activist, anti-war base of the party. Kennedy owned Catholics and ethnic minorities. George Wallace, now a segregationist third party candidate, owned the shattered and demoralized remains of the southern “Dixiecrat” base.

And the “establishment” base of the Democratic Party — the union bosses and city machines — got behind Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Humphrey ignored the primary states — which at that time only represented a handful of contests — and focused almost all of his attention on the non-primary states, where party leaders controlled the delegate votes.

Kennedy, of course, would be murdered in June after winning the California primary, leaving only McCarthy to oppose Humphrey. McCarthy, however, had waged a bitter war against Kennedy in the primaries, leading many of Kennedy’s resentful supporters to get behind George McGovern, who entered the contest late.

McCarthy hoped, though, that his demonstrated ability to win votes would convince delegates to the convention that he, not Humphrey, deserved to be the candidate.

Anti-Vietnam protesters gathered in Chicago, the site of the convention that year. Violent confrontations with the Chicago police ensued, broadcast on national television.

Inside the convention hall, the pro-war Humphrey had no trouble with his upstart competitors and dispensed with them on the first ballot. This, of course, sent the protesters into a rage.

The rest, as they say, was history. The 1968 Democratic Convention represented a seminal moment that nearly destroyed the party, and helped ensure that five out of the next six presidential elections were won by Republicans.

The 2016 Republican convention could potentially be worse, because the odds of a contested convention seem to grow by the day.

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich debate on March 10. Carolyn Cole | Los Angeles Times | TNS

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich debate on March 10. Carolyn Cole | Los Angeles Times | TNS

If it happens, we will have never seen anything like it in our lifetimes. And make no mistake, everyone is already preparing for it.

Marco Rubio is making a rather unprecedented effort to keep his convention delegates. He wants the states to ensure his 172 delegates remain with him. Typically, losing candidates release their delegates to vote for anyone they wish.

Ted Cruz is embarking on a very sophisticated effort to gain votes — on both the first ballot, and on subsequent ballots — from delegates that may originally be pledged to Donald Trump (or others).

Republican Party officials are looking at ways of scrapping rules — that they themselves instituted — that help Donald Trump in a contested convention.

And of course, despite a season long commitment to vote for the eventual nominee, all three remaining candidates have withdrawn their pledge to vote for the Republican nominee who emerges after the convention.

The last truly contested conventions we saw were not actually in 1968, but in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower were nominated.

But that was before the parties conducted nationwide voting contests in primaries and caucuses, and before  voters got used to the idea of democratically electing their nominee.

There is simply no way to predict how people will react once it becomes clear that the nomination may be given as a result of political horse trading, and the largest vote getter may not actually end up the nominee.

If that happens, there will be conflict on the convention floor, possibly violence. There will be protesters and clashes with police. The convention will descend into a chaos that will dwarf 1968.

And no matter who emerges from that mess — whether it is Donald Trump or anyone else — they will be mortally wounded, leading a party that has just ripped itself apart.

This can never be allowed to happen again. If nothing else happens as a result of 2016, we must take this opportunity to reform the primary system and start over from scratch.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.