Donald Trump, Meet History's Antecedent, Goldwater

President Bill Clinton visits with Barry Goldwater in 1996 after he was recovering from a mild stroke. In 1964, Republicans nominated Goldwater, a controversial candidate, knowing full well the damage that would follow. In 2016, Republicans will have to decide which is the lesser of two evils: infuriate Donald Trump and his supporters or elect Hillary Clinton and possibly lots more Democrats. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

Donald Trump can't actually meet Barry Goldwater, who has been dead now for 18 years. But he should take a minute to learn a little bit about the Arizona senator's 1964 campaign for the Republican nomination.

What he would discover is that Goldwater also ran an outsider campaign for the GOP nomination. Like Trump, Goldwater drove the Republican establishment to distraction. Like Trump, the establishment woke up late to just how serious a threat Goldwater was to them.

Like Trump, there were early indications that putting Goldwater at the head of the Republican ticket would result in a partywide disaster. And it did. Goldwater lost all but six states in 1964 and handed the Democrats outsized margins in Congress. (For perspective, Democrats held 67.8 percent of the House seats and 68 Senate seats after the 1964 race.)

But there is one big difference between Goldwater's 1964 campaign and Trump's 2016 campaign. Goldwater took over the Republican Party from the bottom up. And Trump is trying to take it over from the top down. That way may not work as well.

More than six years before the 1964 Republican convention, Goldwater and his allies began cultivating the loyalties of the precinct committeemen and county chairmen who would choose the national convention's delegates. In contrast to today's highly visible process of electing delegates in primaries and open caucuses, Goldwater's chief strategist, Cliff White, pursued a nearly invisible nomination strategy aimed at the low and midlevel party elites who would eventually control the delegate selection process.

This process largely escaped the scrutiny of the press, and what was observed was anecdotal and sketchy at best. In retrospect, Theodore White, the renowned chronicler of presidential elections, wrote:

All over the country, in the spring and summer months, such precinct, county and state conventions gathered without national notice.... Like the Kerensky government, they [the Republican establishment] were unaware of revolution until the Red Guards were already ringing the Winter Palace.

This silent grassroots takeover of the Republican Party meant that in early May 1964, Newsweek concluded that Goldwater had the delegates he needed to wrap up the nomination, even though he was sliding badly in the polls and continuing to lose primaries.

Although moderate Republicans tried to unite at the convention to block Goldwater, he prevailed in a bitterly divided Republican Convention. Although he lost big in November, Goldwater left his stamp on the Republican Party—moving it significantly to the right and laying the ground for Ronald Reagan's 1980 nomination.

Despite the similarities, there are big differences between Goldwater 1964 and Trump 2016. As state Republican parties begin the process of selecting delegates to the convention, it looks as if Trump has few friends at the grassroots level of the Republican Party.

Take the case of Colorado, as recently reported in Politico. In a move that could well be a harbinger of future nomination races in both parties, the Colorado Republican Party canceled the presidential preference vote at their March 1 caucuses because they objected to Republican National Committee rules stating that the national convention delegates had to vote the way the caucus voters did.

Instead, the party simply elected delegates to a series of county conventions when the Colorado State Assembly meets. Senator Ted Cruz is working those gatherings hard in the hopes of coming out of Colorado with national convention delegates pledged to him. Early indications are that he will do better than Trump.

Trump's party weakness was evident in Louisiana recently, as well. Although Trump won the primary there, his campaign is complaining that a meeting to select convention delegates didn't invite them. Because of proportional rules, Trump and Cruz get the same number of delegates, and the five delegates Rubio won are essentially free agents whose slots could be filled by anti- Trump supporters.

The whole business prompted Trump to threaten a lawsuit and express outrage at the idea that in winning the primary he could end up with fewer delegates.

The type of conflicts unfolding in Colorado and Louisiana will grow in number in the coming months—unveiling the fact that Trump, for all his dominance among a faction of primary voters, is not as beloved in the grass roots of his party.

By the time Goldwater ran for president, he had made the Republican Party his own. Trump is late to the game of party politics, and whether he can make the Republican Party his own remains to be seen.

For most of American history—from the early 1800s up until the 1970s—primaries either didn't exist or were meaningless. Nominations were decided by the delegates to the convention.

Even today, when delegates are elected in primaries that are "binding" (meaning that they determine who gets how many delegates), once the delegates meet at the convention they can change the rules and free themselves to vote for someone regardless of the outcomes of the primaries. Nonetheless, for several decades now, the primaries have been so important that most people don't realize that ultimately the convention delegates can do whatever they agree to do.

But the long-term result of Trump's candidacy could be one of the most dramatic shifts in the nominating system since the Democratic Party's reform efforts introduced the primary era in the 1970s.

Leading this effort is a retired businessman and Republican National Committee (RNC) member from North Dakota named Curly Haugland. He is hard at work on a book that will outline the responsibilities of a delegate to a national convention—a book that will remind his fellow Republicans that it is convention delegates, not primary voters, who actually nominate the president.

In a recent letter to fellow RNC members, Haugland traces the convoluted history of Republican Party rules over whether delegates have to reflect the presidential preferences of the voters in the primaries. His conclusion: "Every delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention is a completely free agent, free to vote for the candidate of their choice on every ballot at the convention in Cleveland in July. Every delegate is a Superdelegate!"

Until recently, Haugland was waging a pretty lonely war. Lately, however, his message is falling on fertile ground. It may be just what the Republican establishment needs to stop Trump.

As a party, the Republicans are facing two choices, neither of which is very good. On the one hand, they can deny Trump the nomination and anger his supporters, who will retaliate by not voting. On the other hand, they can nominate Trump, who has extremely high negatives and who could possibly cause them to lose not just the presidency but many other races as well.

In 1964, Republicans nominated their controversial candidate knowing full well the damage that would follow. In 2016, Republicans will have to decide which is the lesser of two evils: infuriate Trump and his supporters or elect Hillary Clinton and possibly lots more Democrats.

Elaine Kamarck is founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management and senior fellow, governance studies, at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on government innovation and reform in the United States, countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and developing countries. She focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns.

A portion of this article was taken from Kamarck's new book, Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates, which explores the history of the nomination process.