National Political Conventions

National Political Conventions

As the U.S. At first, nominations were determined by caucuses of each party's members of Congress.The caucus system came under fire with the rise of the Jacksonian Democrats in the 1820's. Typical of the criticisms were those expressed by Felix Grundy in the Tennessee legislature in 1823:

It has been said that the members of Congress in caucus only recommend to the people for whom to vote, and that such recommendation is not obligatory. This is true and clearly proves that it is a matter which does not belong to them - that, in recommending candidates, they go beyond the authority committed to them as members of Congress and thus transcend the trust delegated to them by their constituents. If their acts had any obligatory force, then the authority must be derived from some part of the Constitution of the United States and might be rightfully exercised; but when they say they only recommend, it is an admission, on their part, that they are acting without authority and are attempting, by a usurped influence, to effect an object not confided to them and not within their powers, even by implication.

The caucus system died quickly. The first national convention held to nominate candidates for president and vice-president was held by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831, followed by the National Republicans later that year. The Democrats followed suit in 1832 and the practice became standard thereafter.National conventions are designed to present the appearance of unity, but sometimes they fail badly. In the Election of 1860, the Democrats first convened in Charleston, South Carolina, but Southern Democrats wouldn't agree with the North, so they reconvened in Baltimore to pick their own. After the war, opponents of Grant in 1872 formed the "Liberal Republican" partyIn the Election of 1912, the Republican convention renominated William Howard Taft, which angered the progressives who split off and formed the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party after its candidate, Theodore Roosevelt.The push by Hubert Humphrey to include a strong Civil Rights plank in the Democratic Party platform in the election of 1948 resulted in a walkout by segregationist Southern Democrats, who held a convention in Birmingham, Alabama, and nominated Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.At other times, political splits have taken place even before the national convention. The "liberal Republicans" who opposed Grant in 1872 held their national convention in May, while the regular Republican didn't meet until June.Beginning with the first Democratic National Convention in 1836, the "two-thirds rule" required that the successful nominee gain the support of two third of the delegates. This gave a disproportionate influence to Southern states, who could effectively block unacceptable candidates. The rule was abolished in 1936. The Republican conventions only required a majority for nomination.


How Political Conventions Work

Despite the reluctance of the early leaders of the United States to accept political parties, two had sprung up within a few decades of the country's founding. These initial parties were loosely defined, and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when they came into being. By the late 1790s, however, the parties were becoming more organized and taking a greater role in American politics.

From 1796 to 1824, candidates for presidential elections were chosen by congressional caucuses — that is, the members of Congress for a given party gathered together and decided whom to nominate for the presidential election. The electoral college system was then used to choose the president from among the candidates.

The caucus system began to break down because the American people felt that it took too much power out of their hands. In 1816 and 1820, they were right. The Federalist Party had collapsed, leaving only one political party — the Democratic-Republican Party (this party is not related in any way to the Democrats and Republicans of today). As a result, whoever was nominated by the Democratic-Republican caucus would be guaranteed to win the presidency. James Monroe won in 1816, and was similarly unopposed in 1820. Americans protested the caucus system around the nation.

That period of single-party rule not only led to political conventions, but also created the feeling that a two-party system was crucial to American politics. During the transition period, after the death of caucuses but before conventions were instituted, state legislatures nominated presidential candidates.

Ironically, the first political convention was held by a third party, the Anti-Mason Party, in 1831. Soon after, the National Republicans and the Democrats also began holding conventions. In these early days, the conventions were often held as much as a year prior to the election because transportation was so difficult. For this same reason, they were usually held in centrally located cities. Baltimore held most of the early conventions, while Chicago became the most popular host after the Civil War.

Today, presidential primaries have made the conventions unnecessary for practical purposes. They exist primarily as a marketing tool and a political pep rally, where each party puts on a well-choreographed show. For more information on political conventions and related topics, check out the links that follow.


The Evolution of Party Conventions

E arlier this year, it seemed like this summer might be the most exciting political-convention season in decades. Reality-television celebrity and real-estate magnate Donald Trump was up against the strongest Republican bench in a generation, and for several months during the primary race, everyone was talking about the possibility of an open GOP convention.

If no candidate had secured 1,237 delegates (a majority of the 2,472 total delegates) by the end of the primary season, the Cleveland convention in July would have marked the first time in 40 years that the choice of GOP nominee was not more or less decided by the start of the convention. It would have meant that the delegates would have determined the outcome of the contest at the convention itself. Instead of the typical multi-day political advertisement, participants would have been forced to hash through the convention rules and bylaws to find their standard-bearer for the fall.

The 2016 pundits were breathless in their excitement. As political consultant and commentator Rick Wilson put it, the media world has long viewed the prospect of an open convention as the equivalent of "a naked leprechaun riding on a unicorn." The late great political operative, columnist, and word maven William Safire foresaw the potential for convention-derived media glee long ago. In his indispensable Safire's Political Dictionary, he noted that, in recent generations, a contested convention "has been a vain dream of the media." Safire also wisely distinguished between an open convention and a brokered convention &mdash another term that has been much discussed this year &mdash which he described as "dominated by factional party leaders."

Whatever has gone on in the 2016 Republican contest, it seems clear that "factional party leaders" are not calling the shots, and that fact alone means the traditional understanding of the political convention will change in the coming years. While the 2016 Republican primaries turned out to be less close than they seemed for a time, this year may still presage a new era in conventions, one marked by bitter intra-party divides, instantaneous communications capabilities, and technology-driven efforts by individuals and party factions to circumvent the existing party machinery to reach the people directly.

It is too soon to know how this will play out in future election cycles. But in the past, conventions were shaped and influenced by a combination of changing party needs and evolving technological capabilities. It is reasonable to surmise that future technological and ideological developments will reshape the American invention that is the party convention in ways as yet unforeseen. For this reason, and in preparation for this summer's Democratic and Republican quadrennial shindigs, it is worth exploring how conventions came to be, what they meant for most of our history, why recent conventions have all been predetermined affairs, and what it would mean if future conventions were not quite so predictable.

SHOUTING BY TELEGRAPH

The first national party convention was held in Baltimore in September of 1831, on behalf of the long-departed Anti-Mason Party. Its usefulness quickly became so obvious that both the Democrats and the National Republicans adopted the idea and held their own conventions, also in Baltimore, in preparation for the 1832 presidential election. The Democrats even used the same saloon that the Anti-Masons had used for their get-together.

Conventions had become necessary because parties were becoming more robust and active, and party leaders increasingly needed to get together to plan and coordinate. In the years before conventions, candidates emerged out of the caucus system, under which a small group of individuals picked party candidates &mdash an exceedingly undemocratic process. This didn't bother the founders, who had little interest in &mdash and indeed a healthy fear of &mdash pure, Athenian-style democracy, but it was also unsustainable in the long run. The lack of a formal process was all well and good when the entire nation could agree on the candidacy of George Washington, but it became ever more difficult as a divided populace struggled over difficult issues such as trade alliances, European revolutions, wars, and slavery.

The flaws of the caucus system were evident in 1820, for example, when the divided Federalists did not even field a candidate at all, allowing the incumbent James Monroe to run unopposed. Monroe put a good spin on the circumstances, and his presidency is remembered as the apex of the Era of Good Feelings, in part because of the uncontested election in which he stood for re-election. In 1824, though, the caucus system failed again, selecting Treasury Secretary William Crawford as the presidential candidate, despite the fact that more worthy and popular candidates such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson also sought the presidency. Crawford, however, was the only one who pursued the support of the caucus, which illuminated even more starkly the ineffectiveness of the caucus system.

Conventions, while an improvement over the caucus system, were not a panacea for political or social challenges. Neither the Anti-Masons nor the National Republicans won the 1832 election, and both parties are long gone from the political scene. As for the Democrats, the election winner and the sole remaining party from that cycle, they did not even formally nominate their candidate, incumbent president Andrew Jackson. The convention, which outgrew its original venue and had to move to a church to accommodate its 334 delegates, merely "concurred" with the state nominations Jackson had already received. As Alabama's William King summarized matters in his circuitous way, "with regard to the candidate to be supported for the Presidency, there was no diversity of sentiment among the members of the Convention &mdash all concurring in the propriety and importance of the reelection of our present worthy and venerable Chief magistrate, Andrew Jackson."

With the convention precedent established, parties now had a mechanism for selecting candidates with the input of party members from across the growing country. Such a mechanism was necessary not only because of the increasing contentiousness and complexity of the issues facing the young nation, but also because of the difficulty party leaders had in communicating with one another. Before the spread of rail or the telegraph, party bosses needed one specific time and place where they could get together and unify behind a general election standard-bearer. In addition, beginning in 1840, parties needed to agree on platforms, or sets of issues on which a party would run, and, hopefully, govern. But having a mechanism did not mean that things would be smooth or easy.

In this period, before the existence of our current system of primaries selecting bound delegates, conventions were often raucous and uncertain affairs in which the eventual winners were far from predetermined. In fact, it wouldn't take long for the first "surprise" winner to emerge from a national political convention. Again in Baltimore, this time in 1844, the year in which the first telegraph message was sent, James Polk won the Democratic nomination on the ninth ballot. Polk's selection was a shock, as former president Martin Van Buren was the favorite going in, and indeed was the leader after the first ballot. Yet Van Buren, a wizened political machine operator, was nonetheless done in by the controversial but eventually agreed upon requirement that the nominee receive two-thirds of the delegates. With Van Buren unable to overcome the two-thirds hurdle, former House speaker and Tennessee governor Polk eventually emerged as the winner.

A Polk supporter telegraphed the new nominee the reaction to the news that he had secured the prize on the ninth ballot: "The Convn. Is shouting. The people in the streets are shouting. The news went to Washington and back by Telegraph whilst the votes were counting and the Congress is shouting. There is one general Shout throughout the whole land, and I can't write any more for Shouting. I am yours shouting."

The era's newest technology played a role in the proceedings themselves as well. The convention overwhelmingly chose New York senator Silas Wright to be Polk's vice presidential nominee. But Wright, a friend of the defeated Van Buren, rejected the call of the delegates, and notified the convention of his decision via the newly available telegraph technology. The convention refused to believe his rejections &mdash even though he sent four telegraphic messages to that effect &mdash and Wright had to dispatch messengers by wagon from New York to Baltimore to convey the news by letter. With Wright out of the picture, Pennsylvania senator George Dallas was selected by the delegates and ended up serving as the nation's 11th vice president when Polk won that fall. And the 1844 convention was not just shaped by the telegraph it was also the first convention in which the technology was used to report the final result.

The telegraph would be the predominant method for convention-related communication for several decades. It was never as reliable or cheap as the telephone would be, but it did allow for the immediate transmission of news. Abraham Lincoln famously stayed in touch with developments from the 1860 GOP convention by telegraph, using the device to send the instruction to his aides that they should "make no contracts that will bind me." He also learned via telegraph that he had won the nomination, on the third ballot, even though he was not the leading candidate going into the Chicago gathering.

When the news came in, Lincoln had actually left the Springfield telegraph office where he was following the proceedings during the voting to visit a shop across the square. As he was running his errand, he heard a loud noise coming from the direction of the office. A boy ran toward him, bearing the good news: "Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln, you are nominated." Lincoln accepted the congratulations and huzzahs of the crowd for a few moments, but then made his exit thusly: "I am glad to receive your congratulations, and as there is a little woman down on Eighth Street who will be glad to hear the news, you must excuse me until I inform her."

Lincoln's victory in the third vote was far from the largest number of ballots ever cast in a GOP convention. That distinction goes to another Chicago convention, the 1880 GOP affair. In addition to being the first convention ever to be photographed &mdash a grainy shot of the delegates on the convention floor still exists &mdash it is still the only GOP convention to have more than 10 ballots. A lot more, as it turns out. James Garfield, the eventual winner and member of the reform contingent of the GOP, had refused to put his name forward for nomination, making him a "draft" candidate. Although former president Ulysses Grant was the leader in the early balloting, Garfield sensed that things were moving in his direction, writing to his wife after the first day of the convention that "the signs have multiplied that the Convention is strongly turning its attention to me." Garfield ended up winning on the 36th ballot.

The vice presidency was offered to New York's Chester Arthur, a member of the party's regular faction. Party boss Roscoe Conkling, fearing a fall defeat, advised Arthur, "[Y]ou should drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge." Arthur, however, wisely ignored his advice, saying, "The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining." Tragically, Garfield was assassinated shortly after taking office, which elevated Arthur to the presidency.

The year 1912 would feature two contested conventions, and new technologies would continue to alter how politicians communicated. The Republican convention took place first, at the Chicago Coliseum. Former president Theodore Roosevelt entered with more primary victories and more delegates. He was running, however, against sitting president William Howard Taft. (See William Schambra's piece on this battle, "The Saviors of the Constitution," in the Winter 2012 issue of National Affairs.) Taft and his vice president, James Sherman, had used the relatively new technology of the telephone to strategize about how they would defeat Roosevelt at the convention.

Roosevelt used the phone extensively as well, receiving updates on what was happening at the convention both from his home in Oyster Bay and from offices in New York City, before taking the unusual step in those days of going to Chicago to continue to follow the action. It was to no avail, however. Though convention chairman Elihu Root had served as Roosevelt's secretary of war, he nevertheless presided over a decision that the rules of the convention would disallow the bulk of the Roosevelt delegates. Absent his delegates, Roosevelt lost on the first ballot and would go on to run an unsuccessful third-party "Bull Moose" candidacy that ended up dragging down Taft in the fall election as well.

The beneficiary of the GOP disunity was New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. He closely followed the developments in Chicago by phone from his cottage in Sea Girt, New Jersey. He and his wife, Edith, were supposed to be relaxing while there, but it was to no avail, as Wilson ally William McAdoo kept the governor constantly updated by phone. Wilson was even more actively involved once the Democratic convention began a few days later in Baltimore. Here, too, the eventual winner did not enter with the most delegates. Speaker of the House Champ Clark, a Missouri Democrat, not only started with the most delegates but managed to secure the majority of delegates on the 10th ballot. Wilson was informed of this development over the phone by campaign manager William McCombs, who foolishly advised him to release his delegates at that point. At that time, a candidate needed two-thirds of the vote for the nomination, but every Democrat since 1844 who had secured a majority eventually won the nomination. Wilson remarked unhappily, "so you think it is hopeless," and then acceded to the request.

When McAdoo heard what had happened, he accused McCombs of undercutting Wilson, saying, "You have betrayed the Governor. You have sold him out!" McAdoo then made a call of his own to Sea Girt, explaining to Wilson that Clark had won a majority, but that did not mean that the House speaker had won the nomination. Wilson then countermanded the order over the phone, and eventually went on to win the nomination on the 46th ballot.

The technology of the time did not allow the convention to be broadcast live, but Wilson's speech accepting the nomination was captured on both film and phonograph. As these incidents show, the expanded use of the telephone allowed candidates to engage in more active management of convention efforts than did telegraph messages such as Lincoln's pithy "Make no contracts that will bind me."

CONVENTIONS IN THE AGE OF MASS COMMUNICATION

A major change in the use of technology at conventions, and therefore in the role of conventions themselves, took place in 1924. This would be the first year in which conventions would be covered live over the radio approximately 20 stations broadcast the Cleveland Republican convention, mostly from the Northeast. This development accelerated a change in the fundamental purpose of conventions, from internal meetings designed to determine who would be the party standard-bearer to advertising opportunities for the party and its designee. It may not have been fully apparent at the time, but the ability of conventions to project outward, and with it the ability of the American people to follow the ups and downs of conventions in a real-time, unfiltered way, was the most important factor in conventions becoming the foregone-conclusion spectacles that they have for the most part been since 1980.

One of the first politicians to recognize the opportunity that radio brought with it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In many ways he was a politician designed for radio. Wheelchair bound, radio let Roosevelt communicate without anyone seeing that he could not walk or stand on his own. More important, he had a great radio voice, perhaps the best radio voice in American politics in his era &mdash better even than Thomas Dewey, a trained opera singer.

Roosevelt also understood how to use radio, which became apparent in that 1924 Madison Square Garden get-together. Radio highlighted the differences between old-style podium speakers, men like William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette, and those who understood the new medium. In one instructive example, Bryan &mdash who knew how to spellbind a live audience &mdash walked around the stage to connect with the crowd. But in doing so, the microphones failed to pick up his voice, and many of his words were therefore not broadcast over the radio. Roosevelt, in contrast, was a stationary speaker, in part because of his physical limitations, but also because he understood that he was speaking not just to the crowd in the hall but also to those in the radio audience.

With the home audience in mind, Roosevelt gave a well-received speech putting forth New York governor Al Smith's name for the nomination. This speech became famous for introducing the phrase "happy warrior" into the American political lexicon, a phrase that almost failed to make the speech's final cut. It dates back to an 1807 William Wordsworth poem: "Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he/That every man in arms should wish to be?" Today, it means a politician eager for the fray, and it has been applied in recent years to politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John Edwards. Roosevelt, however, was the first to use it in the political context, albeit somewhat reluctantly. New York lawyer Joseph Proskauer, Smith's campaign manager and the author of Roosevelt's draft address, inserted the phrase. Roosevelt, however, balked at using the "happy warrior" construction, claiming, "You can't give poetry to a political convention." Roosevelt and Proskauer fought over the draft for hours, but Roosevelt eventually gave in, although not in a "happy warrior" fashion.

The speech struck a chord. Arthur Van Rensselaer heard the speech over the radio and wrote to Roosevelt, "You proved yourself to be quite the hero of the convention." Later, after comments like these and others made clear that the speech was a hit, Roosevelt claimed it was his draft, and that he "stuck in" a recommended line of poetry from Proskauer. The "happy warrior" phrase lived on in part because of radio's reach, and its ability to make convention rhetoric part of the national vocabulary.

Radio could elevate Roosevelt, but it could not resolve the problem of a divided Democratic Party. The convention deadlocked for 103 ballots between Smith &mdash who would eventually become the first Catholic presidential nominee in 1928 &mdash and William McAdoo, who had ably advised Wilson back in 1912. Unfortunately, McAdoo had the support of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, an endorsement he did not repudiate. With little room for compromise, the balloting went on for 16 days, until the delegates eventually backed compromise candidate John W. Davis, a former congressman from West Virginia and U.S. solicitor general. Davis actually had some understanding of the importance of radio. He argued that "the radio will completely change campaign methods. I believe it will make the long speech impossible or inadvisable, and that the short speech will be the vogue. Otherwise your audience might tune out on you without your knowing it. It's just a matter of turning a knob." His prescient insights did not help him in the fall campaign, though, as he lost badly to Calvin Coolidge.

Radio would be even more important in the less contentious convention of 1928, which nominated Smith without all of the drama of 1924. At the 1928 event, Roosevelt gave an even better speech, and this time the convention was broadcast from coast to coast. This constituted the third and last time Roosevelt would put forth Smith's name for the Democratic nomination, and the first time he would be successful in doing so. FDR tailored the nominating speech to cater to the radio audience, rather than just those listening in the convention hall. With this in mind, Roosevelt's speech was interspersed with more staccato pauses than one would typically employ in a recitation to the true believers. Roosevelt told the attendees that Smith had "that quality of soul which makes a man loved. a strong help to all those in sorrow or in trouble. the quality of sympathetic understanding of the human heart." The speech was a hit Time called FDR's remarks "the most intelligently well-bred speech of either of the big conventions." Roosevelt was also doing something different from other politicians at the time. As Time put it, "Compared to the common run of nominating effusions, Mr. Roosevelt's speech was as homo sapiens to the gibbering banderlog." At the next convention, in 1932, he and Smith would be rivals for the top slot, and Roosevelt would emerge victorious.

It was only 12 years later that another new technology would again reshape the political convention. The 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia was the first to be broadcast on television. Of course, very few Americans actually owned televisions at the time, and the broadcast images mostly benefited an overflow crowd in a nearby venue. Still, the images were shown in both New York City and Philadelphia, and reached as far as Lake Placid, New York, 375 miles away.

The TV experiment notwithstanding, the 1940 GOP convention is better remembered for being the last time a true dark horse, or surprise candidate, emerged with the nomination. In addition to being a political novice, businessman Wendell Willkie had the disadvantage of having been, until not long before he ran, a Democrat. In fact, at the convention, former Indiana senator James Watson even confronted Willkie, telling him somewhat rudely, "I don't mind the Church converting a whore, but I don't like her to lead the choir the first night."

Watson's piquancy was only a taste of the rough and tumble nature of the raucous affair, which included loud chants of "We Want Willkie," fistfights on the convention floor, and genuine concerns about delegate security. The public-safety director was a man named James "Shooey" Malone, a well-known Philadelphia detective who oversaw 500 police officers involved in the security effort. Malone directed his officers to take out "suspicious-looking persons" from the convention hall. Willkie won on the sixth ballot, at one o'clock in the morning, but not before there were melees between Willkie and anti-Willkie forces over signs, struggles that had to be broken up by police. For his part, Willkie did have an excellent radio voice, but it was not enough to stop FDR's quest for a third term.

By 1952, television was advanced enough that it actually made a difference in the outcome. That year's GOP convention was the first to get "gavel to gavel" TV coverage, with 104 stations in 68 cities showing 70 hours of convention programming to around 70 million people. Going in, Dwight Eisenhower, who like Ulysses Grant &mdash and Donald Trump &mdash had never before held elective office, trailed in delegates behind Ohio senator Robert Taft. Taft, the son of former president William Howard Taft, had 500 of the 604 delegates required at the time for the nomination as the convention began. Eisenhower and his team used the power of TV in their effort to come back from their deep delegate hole. (Ike was acutely aware of the power of television, and as president would maneuver to have the Army-McCarthy hearing broadcast on TV, as he knew Senator Joe McCarthy would fail to enchant given prolonged exposure. See my "Reclaiming the Congressional Hearing" in the Fall 2015 issue of National Affairs.)

The Eisenhower team's strategy was simple: They used the media, especially the television cameras, to project to the observing public that Taft forces, who controlled the National Committee overseeing the process, were violating American principles of fair play. Taft's forces did not want internal party deliberations on questions such as rules and delegate eligibility on display for the public on television. The Ike forces objected, and their push for transparency bolstered the perception that Eisenhower's people were the ones who were playing fairly. For their part, the Taft team grumbled, with one Taft man complaining, "Next thing we know they'll bring a printing press into the committee room."

The key issue on which the Ike forces made their stand had to do with a question of the acceptance of Taft delegates in Texas. Washington governor Arthur Langlie gave a speech arguing against the acceptance of any delegates who were objected to by more than one-third of the national committee. Langlie argued that acceptance of the disputed delegates violated "fair play." Like FDR in 1928, Langlie's speech was specifically targeted not to the convention attendees but to the larger outside audience, now watching via TV rather than just listening on the radio. Langlie's argument was successful, and the ensuing adoption of what was called the "Fair Play amendment" led to the seating of the Eisenhower delegates and to Ike's nomination on the first official ballot. The Taft forces learned to their chagrin that in the television age one could never be successful if seen as being against fair play.

The successful use of television would have both short- and long-term effects on American politics. In the immediate term, the Democrats made the decision to accommodate TV cameras for gavel-to-gavel viewing of their own convention after seeing the GOP convention televised. Every subsequent convention would be covered on TV, and the parties would have to keep that visibility in mind in their planning. But the coverage of the conventions would also lead to greater interest by the American populace in the goings on at conventions, as viewership grew while TV ownership increased from 34% of households in 1952 to 72% in 1956.

One of those families who got a TV between the first and second Eisenhower elections was that of future president Bill Clinton. In his autobiography, Clinton recalled being "transfixed" by watching both parties' conventions in 1956. He also remembered being flummoxed by Adlai Stevenson's putatively modest attempts to refuse the Democratic nomination that year. As Clinton recalled, "even then I couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't want the chance to be president."

OVER-EXPOSURE

Once the 1960s came around, and TV penetration went above 90%, calculations about how to handle television had changed. Ugly scenes like fistfights on the convention floor would not do, and politicians began to recognize the need for smoother, more appealing conventions. How to accomplish this, however, was not obvious. The 1964 GOP convention and the 1968 Democratic convention both broadcast unhelpful images to the nation: In 1964, the images came from inside the hall in Chicago in 1968, the ugliness was broadcast mainly from the streets.

In the 1964 convention, conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater easily won the nomination on the first ballot. Unfortunately for the Republicans, that apparent unity was not the message or the image that emerged from the convention. All summer long, there had been discussions among party moderates about how to stop Goldwater, prompting former vice president Richard Nixon to remark to his aide Pat Buchanan, "Buchanan, if you ever hear of a group getting together to stop X, be sure to put your money on X." As Nixon, who ended up backing Goldwater, foresaw, the moderates' efforts were not going well. At one point, Stuart Spencer, an aide to Nelson Rockefeller, said to his boss, "Governor, I think it's time to call in the Eastern establishment." Rockefeller's reply was telling: "You're looking at it, buddy. I'm all that's left!"

In San Francisco, the Goldwater forces were well aware that party moderates were trying to stop their man, and they were determined not to let it happen. In addition to their anger at the Rockefeller wing of the party, there was also considerable dislike for the media, which was correctly seen as being strongly anti-Goldwater. Veteran newsman David Brinkley told his son Alan not to display his media credentials inside the Cow Palace for fear that journalists might be harmed by the unruly crowd.

When Rockefeller spoke to the convention floor and gave his call against "extremism," he was disdainful, saying to the shouting delegates, "This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen." When baseball great &mdash and faithful Republican &mdash Jackie Robinson cheered on Rockefeller, saying, "That's right, Rocky. Hit 'em where they live," one Goldwater supporter made a threatening move toward Robinson. The man's wife wisely stopped her husband, prompting Robinson to shout, "Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose!" Later, Robinson would say about the ugliness he saw on the convention floor, "I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany."

Rockefeller's argument against "extremism" led to Goldwater's making the most famous statement of the convention, and perhaps of the entire campaign: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And. moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" While the crowd loved the comment, former president Eisenhower &mdash still a power in the party &mdash was not so sure. He asked Goldwater to explain the comment and how it could ever be good politics to back extremism. Goldwater initially struggled with a response, but eventually explained that he meant that Ike himself had been an extremist in the cause of freedom during the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. Ike liked this answer, saying, "By golly, that makes real sense," and he ultimately stuck with Goldwater. For his part, Goldwater was relieved to keep Eisenhower on board and refrained from using the phrase going forward. It didn't help with the broader electorate, though. Unhappy with what they saw at the convention, and continually reminded by the media of Goldwater's soi-disant extremism, the American public overwhelmingly voted for Lyndon Johnson that fall.

Johnson, however, did not have an easy time of things following his big victory. Rocked by growing casualties in Vietnam and urban riots every summer during his presidency, LBJ decided not to run for re-election, setting off an unexpected primary battle. Senator Eugene McCarthy had bravely challenged LBJ from the start, and Senator Robert Kennedy jumped into the fray once Johnson performed poorly in the New Hampshire primary. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the convention as the leader when Johnson finally withdrew, and he would win relatively easily on the first ballot. That is not, however, what most people remember about the 1968 Democratic convention. Outside the convention hall, 10,000 protesters battled up to 24,000 Chicago police, National Guardsmen, and FBI agents for five days in front of the television cameras. As the Chicago cops wielded their nightsticks, arresting 589 protesters and injuring 100, the protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching." They were right.

The ugliness spilled into the main hall as well. George McGovern ally Abraham Ribicoff, in nominating his man, declared that "[w]ith George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." This comment did not sit well with Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who erupted at Ribicoff and shouted a curse word beginning with "f." Daley allies have long insisted that the word the mayor used was "faker." In any case, the Democrats lost a close election that fall, and the images of the battles in Chicago did not help them in November.

Following 1968, we have continued to see indelible moments via TV at the political conventions, even if the outcomes were in almost every case predetermined. Rule changes in both parties have made competing in state primaries and caucuses and securing the necessary majority of delegates going into conventions the new way to run and win. Both parties have seen that it is in their interests not to have ugly floor fights at the conventions, having recognized the opportunity televised conventions offer to make their cases to the American people in the best possible light. If a candidate could secure a majority of delegates before the convention and "clinch" the nomination, he would enter the convention as the presumptive nominee, and his forces would run all aspects of the convention, including the staging, speaker selection, and platform committee. The idea is to have as smooth and as confrontation-free a convention as possible. And largely they succeed, for good or for ill. As Jack Shafer put it in Politico, "The whole show is for the TV cameras, and even then it's not much of a show. It's like a striptease in which none of the dancers shows any skin or a professional wrestling match that lasts four days."

Despite all the efforts to maintain tight control over the conventions going in, it is the spontaneous moments that reflect badly on the parties that tend to be remembered. In 1972, George McGovern could not manage to give his acceptance speech until 3 a.m., which Michael Barone jokingly called "prime time in Hawaii." In 1980, incumbent president Jimmy Carter defeated Ted Kennedy, who gave his great "dream shall never die" speech and then refused to clasp hands in unity with Carter on the convention stage. In 1992, Pat Buchanan gave a speech warning of a culture war, which Molly Ivins mocked as having been "better in the original German." And in 2012, Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood bizarrely interrogated an empty chair representing the leadership vacuum of Barack Obama, prompting Mitt Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, to leave the room and throw up.

THE FUTURE OF CONVENTIONS

Despite these missteps, conventions today remain largely party advertising opportunities rather than fora for real decision-making. This is a function of the combination of forces that have shaped political conventions since their earliest origins: the rules determining the nomination process, the level of division within the party, and the technologies governing political discourse at the time.

Rules were once enormously consequential in determining the outcome of a convention. Champ Clark, for instance, could not win with his simple majority in 1912 instead, Wilson finally won the required two-thirds vote on the 46th ballot. That same year, Elihu Root could disallow the Roosevelt delegates at the GOP convention, allowing Taft to win despite Roosevelt's delegate lead going in. Intractable disagreements within the parties, such as Catholics v. anti-Catholics in 1924, or reformers v. the old guard in 1880, led to long and hard-to-resolve multi-ballot contests with little room for compromise among warring factions. And technology has shaped what the convention itself could do since its earliest incarnation as a relatively simple meeting to enable communication among far-flung, incommunicado delegates and party bosses. Once politicians realized they could use conventions to advertise for their parties, they sought more control over the messaging and the convention itself any misstep posed large risks in terms of the image the party and candidate presented to the listening or watching public.

The same forces are at work going into the 2016 conventions. Much has been made this year about delegate counts throughout the primaries, especially on the Republican side, as an open convention looked possible. And, had the score been a bit closer, every convention rule determination would have had the potential to make or break one or more of the candidates. While it does not look likely that either party will have an open or contested convention this year, both sides are dealing with bitter intra-party division and a new media environment.

Both the GOP and the Democrats have seen some brutal public squabbling between the so-called "establishment" candidates and the "outsiders" this year. Going into Cleveland this summer, Republicans in particular face the challenge of a highly divisive, unconventional candidate whose very appeal seems to rest on his unscripted appearances and unpredictability. The power of the party apparatus has been significantly diminished, especially as the presumptive Republican nominee won primaries with a message of disdain for traditional politics.

Technology has played a huge role in this shift, as candidates &mdash and everyone else &mdash can use online fora to gain immediate access to millions of readers and viewers, drastically reducing the power of the party to influence, let alone control, public debate. Instead, we now see in Donald Trump a candidate whose media strategy is largely predicated on his personal Twitter pronouncements, as well as frequent appearances on big-market TV shows &mdash a stark break from the careful messaging candidates have used in the past.

Though it won't be a contested convention, Cleveland will likely prove intense and surprising. Without the ability to predict or control the message and feel of the convention, and with bitter divisions very much unresolved within the party, the GOP may well host a convention that does not fit the mold of the days-long political ads we've seen in recent years. And while both parties may have dodged the contested-convention bullet this year, the narrowness of the escape suggests that we could potentially be entering another new era in the long and storied history of American presidential nominating conventions.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book, Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office, will be released in September by Lyons.


National Conventions

National conventions are part of the electoral process. National conventions have been held in August in recent election years, and they have to show both Republican and Democrat parties at their very best as the media coverage of these events is immense. Whether these conventions are a vital part of the American political structure, though, is open to debate.

In the past the two national conventions (held by both parties prior to a national election) were of great importance in that it would be at these events that the parties would announce who had won the ‘party ticket’ and would represent that party as the presidential nomination in a national election. His running mate as vice presidential candidate would also be announced.

Therefore the behind the scenes political intrigue at these conventions was at its peak so that vested interests got ‘their man’ as the party’s presidential nominee. This lead to clashes at a time when party unity had to be seen by the public as being at its peak. As a result of this both parties effectively know who their nominations are going to be by the time the national conventions convene. Such information can be easily gained from the stated political support registered at both local and state level in the primaries.

So what is the purpose of the national conventions? Historically, they are usually held in either July or August of the election year – though August was favoured by both parties in 2000. They have a number of purposes:

1. the official party candidates are announced to the public by both parties.

2. each party’s policy platform is announced. This is essentially what each party plans to do if elected by the people. These platforms are then adopted by the parties but they are not binding on either candidates or state parties.

The political ‘bloodshed’ spilt in the past has meant that conventions are now nothing more than a media event. In the recent past a national convention has served to highlight just how fragmented a party can be and this does not serve them well in the public eye. In 1960 the Democrat Party had a political certainty in J F Kennedy. The public image was perfect for the election in that year.

However, behind the public show of support, the Democratic Party was far from united at the time of the Democratic Party’s national convention. When Kennedy arrived at the convention, he did not have a majority of party delegates under his control and this only occurred after a lot of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. That he won the election (though in a very close result) says much about how the party kept this lack of outright support from the media and therefore the public.

Conventions such as the one involving Kennedy in 1960 are known as brokered conventions. This is a reference to the long hours of bargaining that take place behind the scenes by party bosses. As such a system is potentially damaging to a party if such disunity is leaked to the media, there has been a drive to have a clear cut candidate and running mate selected before the national conventions take place. However, if this has not happened (and the movement of the primaries to earlier dates might present the two parties with a problem in future) and no obvious candidate has come to the fore, the conventions might go back to what they were – the time when the party’s presidential candidate is voted for. This is not something that either party relishes as there will always be the potential for party disunity to surface with the added problems of media intrusion into the issue. What could be disastrous for one party could be invaluable to the other who would run a negative campaign along the lines of “Would you vote for a party that can’t make it’s own mind up? etc.

Negative campaigning is where a party concentrates its efforts not on publicising its own policies but on trashing the policies and personalities of the other party.

The most disastrous convention in recent history occurred in 1968 with the Democrats. The party nominee – Hubert Humphrey – had not won a single primary but was put forward as the party’s presidential nominee because he had the support of Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent but shortly to retire president. Outside the convention hall riot police fought with youths who wanted a candidate more sympathetic to their left wing views. The convention got more media coverage for the riots outside and the obvious problems selecting a candidate who had not been popular at a local level and had not won a single primary. The Democrats lost the election.

There was a similar episode also involving the Democrats in the 1972 party convention. This time there was no problem with the nomination (George McGovern) but the organisation of the convention was a shambles.

“The Democrats gave an appearance of being anti-religion and pro-drugs, anti-profit and pro-welfare, anti-family and pro-abortion, anti-farmer and pro-migrant worker, anti-Saigon and pro-Hanoi, anti-armed forces and pro draft-dodgers.” (S. Ambrose)

Richard Nixon (Republican) won a landslide victory. The media concentrated on the Democrats woes and gave Nixon what was essentially a political free ride.

Today, both national conventions are massive media events and a repetition of the 1972 Democrats fiasco have to be avoided at all costs. The author Norman Mailer has described national conventions as:

“a fiesta, a carnival, a pig-rooting, horse-snorting, band-playing, voice screaming medieval get together of greed, practical lust, compromised idealism, career- advancement, meeting, feud, vendetta, conciliation of rabble-rousers, fist fights, embraces, drunks and collective rivers of animal sweat.”

This was written in 1976. Today, a vast amount of time and energy is put into the conventions so that the chances of any mishaps are kept to a minimum. The onus for this rests with the two party chairman. It is their responsibility to present a stage-managed event that is free from scandal. The convention will also have to be media friendly so that the reports in the press and on television will be positive and productive. The portrayal of total party unity will be the most important issue on the minds of both chairmen. The conventions are essentially choreographed with floor managers ensuring that everything runs smoothly. The image the convention presents should be one that will persuade those who have yet to make up their minds that the future of the country is safe in the hands of this party. The crowning glory of the week long conventions is if your presidential hope is ahead in the opinion polls.

One of the final tasks at a convention is the selection of a vice president running partner. The choice of the presidential nominee is nearly always accepted though George McGovern’s choice – Thomas Eagleton – was opposed in the 1972 campaign but later accepted therefore clearly showing the voting public that there was no unity in the Democrat’s camp. The choice of “running mate” is important as in recent years a lot more time has been spent on assessing the qualities of the vice presidential candidates. Both parties want to portray their two candidates as having a “dream ticket”.

The “dream ticket” effectively started with Kennedy as he was young, from the east of America and Catholic. His running mate, Lyndon Johnson, was much older than Kennedy, Protestant and from the south (Texas). The “dream ticket” tries to put together two people who can appeal to the largest number of groups and voters. In 1984, Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro in an effort to get the votes of women George Bush chose the younger Dan Qualye in 1988. Clinton broke this pattern in 1992 by selecting Al Gore as his running mate – they were nearly the same age, both were from the South and both were seen to be conservative.

In 2000, the Democrats national convention was held in Los Angeles. Here the Democrat’s presidential candidate, Al Gore publically presented his vice-presidential running mate, Joseph Liebermann, to the party. Gore returned to the tried and tested ‘opposites’ in that Liebermann was from the north and was a Jew in contrast to Gore’s southern background. However, this was to somewhat backfire, when Gore was accused by some of only selecting Liebermann to get the important Jewish vote (though historically, the Jews have usually voted for the Democrats in national elections). Another major problem that the Democrats had for the Los Angeles convention, was what part Bill Clinton should play. Here was a departing president for eight years, but whose private life from 1998 to 2000 had taken more media coverage internationally than his work as president.

This presented the floor managers with a problem. Simply by being president, Clinton would have to play some role. But if Gore was to be seen as a man who wanted to uphold traditional American family values, what part could Clinton play? Also, out of the two, Clinton was far more charismatic than Gore. Would he steal the show from Gore despite the fact that one was retiring as president and one was running for the position? Clinton gave a speech to the party that lasted about 15 minutes and in this sense he did not outshine Gore. However, in post-election analysis, some Democrats believed that Clinton should have been allowed to play a more significant role during the convention to liven up what was considered to be a convention that lacked sparkle. As with many things in politics, hindsight is a great gift!


16 Big Moments from Political Convention History

After over a year of announcements, trading barbs, debates, primaries, caucuses, a few more debates, lots of polls, intense news coverage, state conventions and endorsements, we're finally here. It's convention season!

The Republicans (in Cleveland) and the Democrats (in Philadelphia) are set to hold their big party meetings to officially nominate their candidates for president -- Donald Trump for Republicans and Hillary Clinton for Democrats. But before the platforms are debated and delegates are counted, here's a look back at big convention moments from years past to get you ready:

1. Clint Eastwood talks to a chair in 2012

Hours before Mitt Romney was to accept his party's presidential nomination, Clint Eastwood took the stage as a "mystery guest" to the 2012 Republican convention. He told an empty chair on stage that was meant to symbolize President Obama that the nation's unemployment situation was "a national disgrace" and that "this administration hasn't done enough to cure that." He also told the "imaginary" Obama, "What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. That. He can't do that to himself. You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy. You're getting as bad as Biden." The speech was seen as rambling, odd and comical.

2. Obama delivers 2004 DNC keynote

Organizers for the 2004 Democratic convention called upon a rising star in the party to deliver a primetime speech to the nation. That July, the nation met a young Senate candidate from Illinois named Barack Obama. Obama&rsquos first national speech was a preview of the candidate Americans would see in future presidential runs. "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story," he said.

3. Bill Clinton's endless 1988 DNC speech

Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton considered entering the 1988 campaign for president, but declined. Instead, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis gave him a coveted speaking slot at the 1988 convention in Atlanta. Clinton's time to shine did not go well, to put it mildly. His speech dragged on for over 30 minutes. His best applause line? "In conclusion . " But it wasn&rsquot all bad news for Clinton, who would go on to capture the party&rsquos nomination and the presidency four years later.

4. 1968 DNC in Chicago

A bitterly divided Democratic Party, which lost one of its prized candidates during primary season, gathered in Chicago. With no clear winner between Sens. George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy, the party establishment chose a third person as the nominee: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not competed in the primary contests. Combine the chaos inside the convention hall with anti-Vietnam War demonstrations happening outside and it was a recipe for disaster. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley attempted to quell the demonstrations -- broadcast on television for the eyes of the nation -- with police force. "Early in the evening, even Mr. Humphrey got a whiff of tear gas when it was wafted through his window at the Hilton from the street fighting below," reported The New York Times. "Mr. McCarthy saw some of the violence from his window and called it 'very bad.'"

5. Ferrarro accepts VP nomination in 1984

Cheers of "Geraldine!" erupted when Ferraro took the stage to accept her historic vice presidential nomination in 1984. She was the first women nominated to a major party ticket in American history. While Ferraro and presidential nominee Walter Mondale ended up losing 49 of 50 states in the general election, commentator Ken Rudin recalled the moment: "it was history, it was dramatic, and there were tears running down nearly every cheek I could find." It took 24 years for another woman to land on a party ticket when the GOP nominated Sarah Palin for VP in 2008. Now, 32 years later, the Democratic Party is set to make history again, nominating Hillary Clinton as the first woman on top of a major party ticket.

6. Ford-Reagan battle creates GOP convention chaos in 1976

A drawn-out GOP primary fight between President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan went right to the convention in Kansas City in 1976. Ford pulled out the nomination, but the crowd cheered mightily for Reagan. In an attempted show of party unity, Ford called Reagan down to the stage to address the crowd. At the time, it was thought Reagan's 1976 run would be his swansong, as he was 65 years old at the time. But four years later, he would capture the nomination and the White House.

7. Ted Kennedy snubs Jimmy Carter in 1980

As was the case with Ford vs. Reagan four years earlier, Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy attempted to unseat a sitting U.S. president in a primary. Their fight continued onto the convention floor, where Kennedy attempted to steal some of Jimmy Carter&rsquos delegates by overthrowing the pledged delegate system. Even though Kennedy failed and Carter won the nomination, Kennedy's convention speech seemed to inspire the crowd. Plus, a lack of Democratic unity -- demonstrated in a supposed snub, where Kennedy avoided striking a "unity pose" with the president -- helped doom Carter's run.

8. Sarah Palin accepts 2008 VP nomination

When John McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, he "astonished the political world," The New York Times wrote. Who is Palin? Why did John McCain pick her? The country met Palin during her 2008 vice presidential nomination acceptance speech. In describing her background, she uttered this key line: "I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA. I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

9. Reagan says farewell in 1988

In what The New York Times called an "emotional address," President Reagan called on Americans to support George H.W. Bush in his own run for the White House. He also thanked them for his eight years as president. "There's still a lot of brush to clear out at the ranch, fences that need repair, and horses to ride. But I want you to know that if the fires ever dim, I'll leave my phone number and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier," he told the convention. He also made an emotional endorsement of Bush at the 1992 convention, two years before he announced his battle with Alzheimer&rsquos disease.

10. 2000 Democratic VP nominee Joe Lieberman addresses 2008 RNC

Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, broke off with his party to win his Senate seat back in 2006. Two years later, as an independent U.S. senator who caucused with the Democrats, he spoke to the RNC as a John McCain supporter. "I am here tonight because John McCain's whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important, but it is nowhere near as important as being an American," he said. A politician cross party lines to deliver a major convention speech is not unprecedented. In 2004, Zell Miller, a Democratic senator from Georgia, delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention. Miller not only criticized Democratic nominee John Kerry, but his own party: "Today, at the same time, young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of a Democrat's manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief."

11. Mario Cuomo keynotes the 1984 DNC

While the nomination was Walter Mondale's, the show belonged to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo during the 1984 Democratic National Convention. He chided President Reagan for his constant talk of America being "a shining city on a hill." "Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a 'Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill,'" he said. Cuomo would go on to contemplate several bids to run for the White House, but ended up passing, earning him the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson."

12. "The Kiss"

Vice President Al Gore joined his wife, Tipper, on stage during the 2000 Democratic National Convention with "a full-mouthed kiss that lasted a exceptionally long time," noted The New York Times. (They also note that it lasted three long seconds.) Talking heads analyzed the kiss for its political capital. They said it was "both a calculated attempt to humanize Gore and a statement of monogamy intended to show that he was his own man and not like his boss, Bill Clinton," TIME magazine reported. The Gores eventually split up in 2010.

13. "Read my lips: No new taxes."

George H.W. Bush accepted his party's nomination in 1988 with two bold phrases. On top of calling for "a kinder, gentler nation," he made a promise that would find itself in many of his future campaign speeches and would later come back to bite him: "The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say to them, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.'"

14. Bush "was born with a silver foot in his mouth"

Texas Treasurer Ann Richards used her 1988 Democratic National Convention speech to catapult her political career. She called then-Vice President George H.W. Bush someone who "was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The convention hall erupted in cheers. Two years later, she was elected governor of Texas. But she lost her re-election bid to a guy named George W. Bush.

15. Ted Kennedy swan-song speech at DNC

Kennedy, "the Lion of the Senate," made one last appearance to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Battling terminal brain cancer, he opened the convention saying that "nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight." He famously supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton during their intense primary. The moment was huge in presidential politics, as the brother of John and Robert Kennedy passed the torch to a new generation led by Obama. The endorsement was seen as a massive boost to Obama&rsquos campaign. The senator from Massachusetts served until his death in 2009.

16. Hillary Clinton nominates Barack Obama at 2008 convention

This year&rsquos Democratic presidential nominee is no stranger to long, drawn-out primaries. Eight years before defeating Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton fought now-President Barack Obama for the nomination. She ultimately conceded the month before the convention, leaving many of her die-hard fans disappointed and embittered about the Democratic Party. To assuage their concerns and signal party unity, Clinton herself called for Obama&rsquos nomination from the convention floor -- to thunderous applause.


How Political Conventions Have Changed Over Time

It’s not yet clear how this moment will reshape nominating conventions. But party leaders will adapt to the technological opportunities it presents, and find new ways to make conventions work.

Politics, like everything else in American life, is being reshaped by the pandemic and by technology. Democrats will hold almost all of their 2020 nominating convention virtually. Republicans have not moved their convention online – delegates will still attend the event in Charlotte, North Carolina – but it will be significantly scaled back.

Most notably, President Donald Trump will give his renomination acceptance speech at another location – first planned to be in Jacksonville, Florida, but which now might be at the White House, or possibly the Gettysburg battlefield, but which could theoretically happen anywhere.

These technological adaptations signal a permanent shift in the way nominating conventions meet and the way voters watch them – but it’s not the first time such radical changes have come to politics.

Technology has driven change in the presidential nominating process since the earliest days of American parties. This is a lesson I learned while researching 19th-century party politics for my book, “The Nationalization of American Political Parties, 1880-1896.” America’s current party organizations were built as party leaders used new technologies to make their proceedings more attractive to voters and their candidates more appealing.

The Caucus System

The first nominating process was not a convention at all. In an age of horse-drawn carriages on muddy dirt roads it could take more than a week – in good weather – just to cross large states like New York. Travel was expensive and unreliable, making large gatherings of people separated by great distances unworkable. So the earliest party nominations in 1796 and 1800 happened when members of Congress started consulting in informal meetings called caucuses to select nominees before returning home for fall campaigns. It was an efficient means of achieving party unity under the circumstances. There was, however, little room for voter involvement.

Between 1800 and 1830, states built better roads and canals. Travel times were shortened, and the cost of travel shrunk. The Post Office, established in 1792, delivered printed material cheaply, subsidizing a booming national press. Americans were able to gather across vast distances, had better information and depended less on word of mouth from political leaders.

The Rise of Conventions

With better informed citizens, the caucus system was in disarray by the 1820s. It was fully discredited in the eyes of many voters and political elites in 1824 when less than half of the members of the Republican party caucus attended the meeting. Multiple nominees were instead selected by state legislatures, creating a crisis of legitimacy for the dominant Republican party, which historians now refer to as the Democratic-Republican party.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, based in part on a nomination from the Tennessee state legislature. After his victory, he engineered the first national convention of a major party in 1832, at which the Jackson faction of the Republican party called itself the Democratic party.

The convention did not officially re-nominate Jackson, but it did choose his running mate, Martin Van Buren. In the process it demonstrated that a national convention could in fact gather larger numbers of delegates, who themselves represented a larger number of voters, and could therefore be more democratic.

This convention model dominated American politics for the next hundred years.

Convention sites followed the progress of American transportation networks westward. The first six Democratic national conventions were held in Baltimore due to its convenient location and its position on the border of slave and free states. But as railroads made travel less expensive, the parties moved west. In 1856 Democrats convened in Cincinnati, in 1864 in Chicago, and in 1900 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Republicans met in Chicago as early as 1860 and as far west as Minneapolis by 1892. To appeal to different regions, both parties moved their conventions every four years – a tradition maintained to this day.

Conventions in the 20th Century

Another technological shift came in 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt became the first major party nominee to address a convention in person.

Until then, custom dictated that the nominee stayed home under the pretense of not being too ambitious for office. Some months later, a committee of delegates would visit the nominee to “inform” him of his candidacy. Only then did the nominee give brief prepared remarks and start actively campaigning.

Roosevelt blew through that custom by catching a plane from New York to the Democratic convention site in Chicago and addressing the delegates the day after his nomination. “Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions,” Roosevelt intoned, before calling for a “new deal.”

Traveling to Chicago was not just a metaphor for Roosevelt. By dominating the attention of the convention at precisely the time voters were paying attention to it, FDR signaled his intention to not only be a nominee of the party, but the leader of the party. And it made his transformative political message part of the news.

Television further changed the conventions. For much of the 19th century, presidential nominations were contested by multiple candidates, causing difficult convention battles the 1924 Democratic convention went through 103 rounds of balloting before settling on John W. Davis.

Starting in 1948, conventions permitted television cameras, which reduced the incentives for endless ballots. Instead, conventions became visible celebrations of party unity.

In 1972, the parties started using primary elections to select delegates pledged to vote for specific candidates, so the delegate count was publicly known before the conventions were gaveled to order. Conventions became days-long infomercials for the nominee.

Unconventional Conventions

The pandemic has struck at just the right moment for another technological shift. Network television news – the medium through which most 20th century conventions were viewed – commands less voter attention.

Moving the convention spectacle online allows the party to control their message more effectively – as Republican efforts to exclude journalists from the proceedings highlight.

Democrats have announced that some speeches will be recorded in advance, allowing the party to release focused content compatible with the pace and packaging of social media. As voters share and comment on that content, using official party social media graphics and Zoom screens, it could nurture a sense of party identification, and of virtual participation.

What Comes Next?

The GOP’s wavering between different locations, and the Democrats’ plan to rely on remote speakers, will lead some to ask whether a centralized convention is even necessary. In the future, why not have multiple convention sites across the country, with multiple political figures speaking to smaller physical audiences?

Events like that could enable the party to target narrow groups of voters more effectively. As parties experiment with the potential of digital technologies, it seems likely that they will find some of them more attractive than cavernous convention halls and outdated swarms of straw hats.

But that approach would have disadvantages. Social media spectacles would eliminate spontaneous reactions from delegates that give home viewers a sense of the mood – whether dissension from the party line, contagious enthusiasm or even the striking power of a memorable speech line. Democrats have acknowledged that the online format in 2020 will deprive supporters of Bernie Sanders the stage they had in 2016. As much as specialized events might draw in some voters by targeting narrow groups, they might also allow parties to create more divisive appeals in ways that evade broader scrutiny. And virtual conventions can make it easier for party leaders to obscure proceedings from journalists and the public.

It’s not yet clear how this moment will reshape nominating conventions. But party leaders will adapt to the technological opportunities it presents, and find new ways to make conventions work.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


U.S. Political Conventions & Campaigns

In 1832, the Anti-Masonic party held the first national political convention ever, because they wanted to open up the presidential nominating process to the voters. For the first time, the process included delegates (individuals that are chosen to select the candidate to represent the party). In 1832 the party nominated William Wirt for President. The Democrats and Republicans followed suit later that year, nominating Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, respectively.

The Republican National Convention, held in Philadelphia,
June, 1900.

By the mid 1800’s, political conventions became the main process through which parties chose their presidential nominees. Early conventions often had many rounds of voting that led to a prolonged nominating process. For instance, Democrats did not nominate Franklin Pierce until 49 ballots had been cast. Because the process was often tedious, bargains and back room deals were a common feature of early conventions, and the selection process would often result in a compromise between key figures in the party. Many conventions contained a proverbial “smoke-filled room,” where party leaders would have met to decide on the candidate they wanted to run for the White House.


Interview Highlights: Jill Lepore

On the emergence of the legislative caucus, and its political impact

"People thought very quickly &mdash because there's also popular vote &mdash 'Well, what are we doing? We're voting for delegates to the electoral college. Are they supposed to vote the way we want them to vote, or are we just voting for them to make a decision on their own?' And so there emerged a new system which is known as the legislative caucus, where the parties got together, members of Congress of the same party, and said, ‘OK, here's who we really want to be our presidential candidate.’ And then they told delegates to choose that candidate, as the party system emerged.

Then people said, 'Well now' &mdash people, ordinary people who are voting &mdash 'What role do we have in electing the president?' And now by the time we get to the 1820s, these are people who aren't used to having a king. So they said, you know, ‘We don't want this king caucus, we want to elect the president directly,' in a sense at least.

So they came up with his idea in Jacksonian America to hold the convention. Delegates from each state would come, delegates would represent members of the electoral college. They choose and candidate and it would be this great mass sort of embodiment of the idea of popular sovereignty &mdash the people rule, the people will decide."

"It's useful for people to sit up, have their ears perk up, and say, 'How does this system work again?'"

Jill Lepore, on the positives of people talking about political conventions

On those who say the current party nomination system is flawed

"The trick is you can get a lot of political capital out of saying the system is rigged and needs to be democratized and the people don't have enough of a vote. But you can only say that so many times. At the end of the day, are we just going to sit at our computers and all, at the same time, instantaneously vote and have a direct election of the president? We've kind of got to a point, what is the next level of reform?"

On the potential impact of a party's platforms

"It would be a very interesting empirical study to systematically study the relationship between the platforms and the legislative successes of the party in power in the wake of the election. You see a lot in platforms, actually not of advancing an agenda, but of retreating from an agenda.

One of the first photos of the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Ill., on June 14, 1932. (AP Photo)

For instance, the Republican Party's commitment to the [Equal Rights Amendment], which the Republican Party was the first party to endorse the ERA on its platform in 1940. But in the '70s, the Republican Party for the first time abandoned its commitment to equal rights for women. That wasn't a concession. That was a rejection of a whole arm of the party. It's very important, it's meaningful and it's significant historically as an index to the direction of the party, but it doesn't really auger it's next successes."

On her thoughts on this year's conventions

"There’s this pervasive sense of foreboding about the possibility of violence. On the other hand, the upside would be &mdash as a historian, as someone who cares about the past and cares about American civics and democratic institutions that provide stability to the United States and serves as a model for other nations &mdash people really know a lot about the nominating conventions this year.

There's really been a kind of a lot of conversation, like, 'What is a super delegate?' To some degree, that happens every four years from people who aren't winning the nomination (who) begin noticing the system suddenly, they didn't notice it three years after the last nominating convention, they only notice it four years afterward. That's really good. It's useful for people to sit up, have their ears perk up, and say, 'How does this system work again?' Not in a kind of paranoid, hysterical way, but to wonder, 'What are the set of circumstances that led us to where we are, and is there room for reform? What is the role of money in these campaigns and in this system?' Those are really urgent questions."


Brief History of Contested Republican Conventions

I write this blog in light of the lasting discussion of a possible contested Republican convention in 2016 election. While historically common, a contested convention has not occurred 40 years. The following is a brief history of each contested Republican national convention from the past. After reading this, how do you feel the convention of 2016 might play out?

1856 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, PA

Leader on the first ballot: Rep. Nathaniel Banks of MA

Ultimate Nominee: Fmr Sen. John C. Fremont of CA

The Republican Party started out as a single-issue third party but quickly evolved into the leading alternate to the older Democratic Party after the fragmentation of the Whig Party. The primary Whig party leaders, such as William Seward, Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase, were not candidates for the presidency, since they didn’t expect their party to win in 1856. As such, five minor candidates were nominated at the convention, with Nathaniel Banks, the controversial Speaker of the House, leading on the first 10 ballots.

Banks was something of a fence-sitter. He had recently been both a Democrat and a member of the anti-immigrant, anti-catholic Know-Nothing Party. As the most powerful candidate, and as someone who represented issues outside of the slavery question, Banks held on as frontrunner for some time.

The ultimate nominee, John C. Fremont, was a famous explorer who made five expedition throughout the relatively unknown Western part of the continent. As such, he was appointed Military Governor of California, and he became its first US Senator once it became a state, as an anti-slavery Democrat. Despite these offices, he was actually politically inexperience and naive, as he was isolated from the political scene of the rest of the country. At the convention, Fremont was in second place through four ballots, the gap between him and Banks increasing each time. He fell to third place behind Supreme Court Justice John McLean for the next six ballots. After the tenth ballot, Banks withdrew from the race and endorsed Fremont. McLean, having lost ballots and not willing to lose his position on the court, decided to do the same. John C. Fremont became the first Republican nominee.

1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, IL

Leader on the first ballot: Gov. William Seward of NY

Ultimate nominee: Fmr Rep. Abraham Lincoln of IL

William Seward saw himself as the Henry Clay of his party. That is, the undeniable leader of his party, just as Clay had been for the Whig Party for decades. Since the Democratic Party had split, Seward expected to be the 16th president. Unfortunately, Seward faced competition from at least other narcissists, such as Salmon P. Chase and Simon Cameron, both who also saw in themselves a Henry Clay. Additionally, the Republican Party, which had focused on abolitionism in the past, was moderating itself to include more former Whigs and dissatisfied Democrats. Seward did not adapt to the times and reached his ceiling on delegates who could favor both radical Republicanism or Seward-brand majesty. Seward held onto first place for two of the three ballots.

Former one-term US Representative Abraham Lincoln, who had been an option for Vice President in 1856, held second place after the first ballot. His name was fresh in everyone’s ear after his eloquent debate performances against Stephen A. Douglas in a losing bid for a US Senate seat. He had also risen a crowd to his feet with a recent speech at the Cooper Union building in New York City. He was seen as moderate on the slavery issue compared to Seward, Chase and a few others, but not too moderate, like former slave-owner Edward Bates. Additionally, he hadn’t any of the reputation for political corruption as Cameron had. Most important of all, Lincoln had home-field advantage, and he filled the convention center with as many Illinois citizens as possible.

After the first ballot, Simon Cameron dropped out, along with most of the minor candidates. In the second ballot, both Seward and Lincoln gained, with Lincoln now virtually tied with Seward. Chase’s support slipped slightly, while Bates fell noticeably. On the third and final ballot, it was obvious that Lincoln was overtaking Seward, and so Chase and Bates dropped out. Their support, as well as some of Seward’s support, handed Lincoln the nomination.

All four of Lincoln’s major convention competitors received cabinet appointments, with Seward receiving the top spot as Secretary of State. Some say this inspired Barack Obama to act similarly following his victory in 2008.

1876 Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio

Leader on the first ballot: Rep. James G. Blaine

Ultimate nominee: Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes

This was the first contested Republican convention in 16 years, since Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant had relatively solid support in the last three conventions. Grant wanted a 3rd term, despite a scandal-ridden presidency, but he was talk out of it. As such, the field was wide open. Six major candidates, along with several minor candidates, vied for the nomination.

Speaker of the House James G. Blaine was the leader of the Half-Breeds, the moderate wing of the party that sought political reform. However, heading into the convention he was plagued by a scandal involving an illegal transaction and by ill health. While he was considered innocent of any wrongdoing, it still harmed his electability. A rousing nomination speech, dubbing Blaine as a “plumed knight,” helped Blaine gain a massive lead on the first ballot, but he had difficulty increasing this lead. The radical Republican establishment, which favored a continued domination over the defeated South, soon rallied against him by the 7th ballot, and blocked a potential Blaine victory by endorsing a compromise candidate.

The second-tier candidates were Sen. Oliver Morton, Sec. Benjamin Bristow and Sen. Roscoe Conkling. Morton was in poor health and had a controversial past on economic issues. Bristow of Kentucky was both a popular reformist and an economic wizard. Bristow could also claim to be the heir of Grant, since he was in his cabinet. However, rumors spread that by being a reformist, and by uprooting corruption, that he was, in fact, disloyal to Grant. The last of the second-tier candidates, Roscoe Conkling of New York, was the leader of the Stalwart, establishment faction of the party, which was opposed to reform and desired a continued domination over the South. He had been a leading spokesperson for Grant, and considered himself as heir to Grant. Unfortunately, the corruption of both Grant and of New York machine politics worked against him in a reformist era.

The third-tier included two politicians who had also been Civil War generals: John Hartranft of Pennsylvania and Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Hayes had the firm support of his state and solid endorsements from influential Sen. John Sherman (brother of General Sherman) and James Russell Lowell, who was a popular poet and ambassador during the time.

Since Blaine was unable to win the nomination, and the anti-Blaine faction was unable to gain a victory over Blaine with Stalwart candidate, Hayes was selected as a compromise choice. To ensure harmony, Rep. William Wheeler, who was an anti-Conkling New Yorker, was selected as vice president. Hayes accepted Wheeler on his ticket, even though he admitted that he had no idea who Wheeler was. Hayes would have to make another, greater compromise upon winning the general election.

1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Pres. Ulysses S. Grant

Ultimate nominee: Rep. James A. Garfield

This was one of the stranger conventions. Incumbent president Rutherford B. Hayes fulfilled his promise to serve only one term. Three major candidates emerged on the first ballot as viable candidates: Former president Ulysses S. Grant, Half-Breed leader Sen. James G. Blaine, and Sec. John Sherman (brother of General Sherman).

Grant’s popularity had increased since he left office, so Roscoe Conking, the leader of the establishment wing of the party, pushed for the former president’s nomination. Grant ignored criticism that he was violating the two-term precedence, and accepted Conkling as his potential kingmaker, despite personally favoring Half-Breeds, like Blaine at this time. Grant was the strongest candidate, but he was now associated with the controversial Conkling of New York machine politics.

Blaine, as mentioned earlier, was the leader of the reform-minded Half-Breeds, who had nearly won the nomination in 1876. He had previously served as Speaker of the House and was now a powerful Senator from Maine. Blaine was the defact anti-Grant/Conkling nominee however, like Conkling, Blaine had his enemies. Those with the most influence have the most enemies.

John Sherman was President Hayes preferred successor, but he did not go out of his way to support him. Rep. James A. Garfield gave Sherman’s unimpressive nominating speech. While respected for his intellect, Sherman lacked the charisma necessary to win delegates in a convention. He had to settle as a hing between Grant and Blaine.

Several minor candidates were nominated, but the ultimate victor, Garfield, did not received a vote until the second ballot, when he received 1 vote. Future president Benjamin Harrison and incumbent president Hayes also received a token vote during points of the balloting process.

Grant held the lead through 35 ballots, with his delegate count staying approximately the same throughout. Blaine maintained second place during these ballots, losing a few on ballot 35. Sherman was in third place throughout 35 ballots, increasing his delegates significantly after the 28th ballot, when many minor candidates dropped out.

However, Sherman’s rise was never to amount to anything. On ballot 33, a few of Sherman’s supporters switched to Blaine to see if that could defeat Grant/Conkling. On the next ballot, a few of Sherman’s supporters and delegates who had been favoring minor candidates back the unsuspected James Garfield, who then rose from virtually non-existent to 5th place. On the 35th ballot, a small segment of Blaine, Sherman and minority delegates also backed Garfield, rising him to 4th place. The Stop Grant Movement saw that Garfield might win support from both Blaine and Sherman supporters, and Blaine preferred Garfield to Sherman. Thus, Sherman dropped out, sending his men to Garfield, when most of Blaine’s supporters switched to the compromise choice they preferred. Garfield won a narrow victory over Grant on the 36th ballot.

Garfield was stunned speechless in victory. To appease Conkling supporters, Garfield accepted mutton-chopped Chester A. Arthur as his VP, a known Conkling crony with no major political experience. Garfield made Blaine his Secretary of State.

1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Leader on the first ballot: Sec. James G. Blaine

Ultimate winner: Sec. James G. Blaine

The third of four straight contested conventions was one of the few that saw a sitting president fail to receive renomination. Incumbent president Chester A. Arthur had upset former Stalwarts by breaking with Roscoe Conkling and backing assassinated President James A. Garfield’s civic reforms. Arthur was also seen by some as a lazy president, working infrequently and spending much of his time socializing rather than working. This allowed three-time candidate James G. Blaine of Maine to emerge as a strong alternate once again.

The Stalwart faction mostly dissipated following Grant’s convention defeat in 1880 and Arthur’s ousting of Conkling’s influence in the Garfield/Arthur presidency. With reformists in control, it seemed obvious that the lead Half-Breed, Blaine of Maine, should take the cake. Blaine initially attempt to push General William T. Sherman to run, but Sherman famously declined.

During the convention the overwhelming majority of delegates supported either the sitting president or Blaine. Six other candidates received a smaller amount of votes, including John Sherman and Stalwart John Logan. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and John Sherman’s brother, General William Sherman, received a few token votes.

Arthur had the support of big business and Southern Republicans, many who had received jobs from Arthur. While a surprise reformist, the Half-Breeds elected to go with their leader over a former Conklingite who could switch back. Blaine held the lead over Arthur on every ballot. On the 4th ballot, Blaine won the nomination with the unexpected endorsements of John Sherman and John Logan.

Blaine would go on to lose a close election to Grover Cleveland. It would be the first Republican electoral defeat since 1856. Some blame Arthur, who did not campaign for Blaine. Arthur was in ill health and would die only two years after this convention.

1888 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Leader on the first ballot: Sen. John Sherman

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Benjamin Harrison

The fourth of four straight contested conventions occurred after the Republican’s first electoral defeat in nearly three decades. Six major candidates attempted to play the role of party savior: Sen. John Sherman, Sen. Benjamin Harrison, Gov. Russell Alger, Judge Walter Gresham, Sen. William Allison, and businessman Chauncey Depew.

Former nominee James G. Blaine was considered a frontrunner heading into the convention, but he took himself out of the race. With Blaine out, John Sherman believed it was finally his turn for the nomination.

Sherman held a strong lead on the first ballot, with Gresham as the only apparent threat. However, by the 5th ballot Sherman could not win over any more supporters and he hit his delegate ceiling. Gresham, who had the support of rural Republicans and was practically a Democrat, reached his delegate ceiling at the 3rd ballot. The other candidates, except for Harrison, who was in 5th place after the first ballot, failed to win much support outside of their respective states.

After the 3rd ballot, Depew and several minor candidates dropped out. The freed delegates, as well as some of Gresham’s supporters, went to Harrison, while a few went to Blaine, who was still refusing to be a candidate. Thus, Harrison jumped to second place. By the sixth ballot, Harrison had narrowed the gap with Sherman to a near tie, following a brief attempt by a few delegates to draw attention to future president William McKinley as a compromise choice. On the next ballot, Blaine’s support went for Harrison as did some of Algers and Shermans backers. While Sherman and Harrison both lacked charisma, Harrison was at least a dynamic speaker at times. Both were from the same region. On the next and final ballot, the majority of all delegates switched to Harrison.

Harrison would bring the Republicans back to the White House, as well as become the first grandson of a president to be elected. It should be noted that the convention saw the first African-American to receive delegates in a Republican convention. Frederick Douglass received a vote on the 4th ballot. Two sons of former presidents, Robert Todd Lincoln and Frederick Dent Grant, also received token votes.

1912 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Leader on the 1st ballot: Pres. William H. Taft

Ultimate nominee: Pres. William H. Taft

The first contested convention in 24 years lasted for only a single ballot. The 1912 election was also the first election with primaries although, every state did not have primaries.

The incumbent Taft was seen by some as too conservative for this progressive age. Disappointed in his chosen successor, former president Theodore Roosevelt, ran for a non-consecutive term. Roosevelt was built for primaries, easily winning 9 of the 12 states that had them. Progressive Republican Robert La Follette won two of the states, while Taft won only one state.

Despite the overwhelming popular support for Roosevelt, the Republican establishment preferred the less independently-minded Taft. The establishment opted against a compromise candidate and worked to ensure an easy Taft renomination on the first ballot. This done, Roosevelt accused the party of fraud, and the progressives stormed out to selecting Theodore Roosevelt as their nominee for president.

The split in the party handed the general election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, in what should have been a landslide victory for the Republicans.

1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Leader on the first ballot: Gen. Leonard Wood

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Warren G. Harding

After two electoral defeats to the Democrats, the Republican Party felt confident of a victory in the post-World War I era. The question now was who would be the next president? Former president Theodore Roosevelt, who sat out of the 1916 election, was the presumptive frontrunner for 1920, but he died unexpectedly in 1919, and General John J. Pershing, hero of WWI, declined to contest.

This gap paved the way for three candidates with support. General Leonard Wood had the support of both Roosevelt and Pershing fans. Gov. Frank Lowden had proved to be a tough-minded governor, who supported some popular progressive measures however, his failure to reign in government spending hurt him with some of the delegates. Sen. Hiram Johnson, Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate for the Progressive Bull Moose Party of 1912, became the top choice for the progressive wing of the party. Many minor candidates including progressive icon Robert La Follette and future presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover received a few votes. Sen. Warren G. Harding was in 6th place on the first ballot, having the support of his state of Ohio.

With Wood and Johnson splitting the majority of the progressive votes, and Lowden seen as too independent by the more conservative establishment, a new candidate was sought. Wood held the lead for four ballots and then lost the lead occasionally to Lowden over the next four ballots. Johnson hardly expanded beyond his strong 3rd place start. Despite this, Johnson refused to drop out, and neither of the three major candidates considered a compromise candidate. Harding was overlooked because he had performed poorly in the primaries.

During one of the convention nights, Harding’s forces spoke with several influential Republicans to convince them to support Harding in the event that Wood, Lowden or Johnson cannot get the nomination. Harding was known to be likable, malleable to the Republican establishment, and he could certainly win the important state of Ohio. Besides, as his campaign manager put it, “he looked like a president.”

With renewed support, Harding leaped over Johnson to third place on the seventh ballot. He slowely drained votes from other candidates for the next few ballots, until a large portion of Lowden supporters switched to Harding on ballot 9. Harding was now in first place. Most of Wood and Johnson’s supporters failed to budge for the next ballot, but about everyone else endorsed Harding.

Harding would also win the general election, becoming one of the worst American presidents, before mercifully dying. Some say that the batch of Republican candidates in 1920 was exceptional, and that by compromising, they selected the least competent of the bunch.

1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Leader on the first ballot: Mr. Thomas Dewey, an attorney

Ultimate nominee: Wendell Wilkie, a businessman

The Republicans expected to lose to popular Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was running for an unconventional 3rd term, during the early years of World War II. Out of the candidates, only two major politicians had support for the nomination: Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. Two more candidates with supports included two minor politicians: attorney Thomas Dewey and businessman Wendell Wilkie.

Taft, the son of former president William H. Taft, led the conservative wing of the party that opposed the New Deal and military intervention. Dewey was politically moderate and was well-known for taking on the mafia in the courtroom and winning. Vandenberg was a less a slightly less conservative alternative to Taft, who also opposed intervening into World War II. Wilkie was a businessman and a former Democrat that still supported the New Deal and was the only major candidate in favor of aiding allies in World War II.

Each candidate had downsides. Taft was too conservative and non-interventionist for the 1940s. Dewey had no foreign policy and he was only about 38 years old. Vandenberg lacked the energy to campaign nationwide. Wilkie’s platform was not much different than FDR’s, according to some, and he had not participated in any of the primaries.

On the first ballot, Dewey held a massive lead, with Taft and Wilkie in second and third. Vandenberg greatly under performed and barely held a lead over the 5th placed candidate, Gov. Arthur James. By the third ballot, neither Dewey nor Taft could secure the nomination. Some of Dewey’s supporters followed minor candidate delegates who had switched to fellow moderate Wilkie. More of Dewey’s supporters moved to Wilkie, who emerged to the top of the ballot. Dewey dropped out for ballot five, with most of his support going to Wilkie, and those who thought Wilkie too liberal, going for Taft. On the next ballot, the minor candidates, as well as Vandenberg’s supporters, handed Wilkie the victory. It should be noted that former president Herbert Hoover also received a handful of votes throughout the balloting process, but he was never seriously considered.

Wilkie allowed the convention to select the vice president. Oddly, he was forced to take on a leader of the “Stop Wilkie” Movement, Charles McNary. Overall, Wilkie seemed like a good candidate in some ways, since he wouldn’t drastically oppose the popular New Deal plans or ignore events in Europe, but he may have been similar enough to FDR that he couldn’t pull many votes from him.

1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ultimate nominee: General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Incumbent Democratic president Harry S. Truman was so unpopular that the Republicans were virtually guaranteed the presidency in 1952. As such, this nomination amounted to selecting the next president, rather than just a nominee. The leader of the conservative wing, Robert Taft, saw himself as the proper candidate to counter the Roosevelt-Truman years, especially after the moderate, Thomas Dewey wing, of the party failed in several elections in a row. His only major competitor was World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was courted by both Democrats and Republicans, until Dewey won him over. Dewey had opposed Taft’s non-interventionist platform throughout the 1940s, and Eisenhower was a perfect post-war internationalist. The convention thus pitted a seasoned politicians with an international celebrity.

The 1952 nominating convention is arguably as controversial as the 1912 convention, with one wing of the party once again crying foul. Initially, both major candidates were about tied in the balloting process. However, Eisenhower’s supporters, led by moderate leader Thomas Dewey, announced that Taft’s supporters had illegally blocked Eisenhower from getting delegates placed in the South. Taft denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the convention voted to realign the delegates in the contested area, despite Taft’s protests. After the shift, Eisenhower easily won the nomination. Eisenhower agreed to take on the younger, more conservative Richard Nixon as his vice president.

Following the convention, Eisenhower met with Taft privately to smooth things out between the wings of the party, making some small concessions, such as agreeing to cut federal spending.

1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri

Ultimate nominee: President Gerald Ford

This convention is the last contested convention, since two major candidate entered the convention without a enough primary delegates for victory, although incumbent President Gerald Ford led slightly in delegates and in overall votes over former Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford held the support of the moderate, establishment Republicans and Reagan held the hearts of the ever-growing conservative movement within the party. This nomination, in a way, showed that the balance was beginning to tip in favor of a new direction for the party. But it would not happen this year.

Reagan made a few blunders. First, he announced that he would select a moderate vice president, which angered his base. Secondly, he tried to force Ford to do the same, with the hopes that he’d anger his base as well. Ford refused, and the convention voted down Reagan’s motion to make him do so. Reagan’s momentum going into the convention faltered as the voting began. Ford, who had the lead going in, confirmed his lead among the delegates and went on to lose his renomination against Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter.


A Brief History Of Democratic and Republican Convention Insanity (Photos)

It's not clear just what is going to happen at the Republican National Convention, but considering the chaos this election cycle has already unleashed, there's a good chance that Donald Trump's party will add to the history of chaotic moments that have come to define this strange aspect of our electoral process. Some conventions featured some famous gaffes, while others became a flashpoint for anger and violence.

1924 Democratic Convention -- Imagine if, in our 24-hour news world, a convention lasted for over two weeks. That's what happened in 1924, when Prohibition opponent Al Smith faced off against William McAdoo, who was supported by the Ku Klux Klan.

McAdoo tried to distance himself from the Klan, but to no avail, as chants of "Ku Ku McAdoo!" and "Booze! Booze! Booze!" flew back and forth as dozens of rounds of balloting passed. After 103 ballots, the Dems settled on milquetoast compromise candidate John W. Davis, who got crushed in November.

1964 Republican Convention -- In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, arch-conservatives pushed Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, resulting in a convention that splintered the Republican party.

A fistfight nearly broke out during a platform debate on immigration, and Goldwater supporters jeered moderate rival, Nelson Rockefeller, during his speech. But the Goldwater camp turned out to be a very loud yet very small minority, as Lyndon B. Johnson took 44 states in the general election.

1968 Democratic Convention -- With MLK and RFK dead, student protests across the nation and the Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular, the Democrats' decision to not push against Lyndon Johnson's policies in Southeast Asia was the last straw for some. Protesters marched on the convention in Chicago and, as TV news cameras rolled, were brutally beaten by police.

1972 Republican Convention -- Vietnam War protests continued in the next election, when Richard Nixon brought his re-election campaign to Miami Beach. Once again, the scene outside erupted into violence, with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson getting caught in the crossfire, though he noted that one nonviolent group struck him the most:

"There was an ominous sense of dignity about everything the Vietnam Veterans Against The War did in Miami," wrote Thompson. "They rarely ever hinted at violence, but their very presence was menacing on a level that the street crazies never even approached, despite all their yelling and trashing."

1980 Democratic Convention -- Inexplicably, one Democratic delegate cast a vote for George Orwell to be Jimmy Carter's running mate. The "Animal Farm" author had been dead for 30 years.

But that was nothing compared to the extremely awkward ending to President Jimmy Carter's convention speech, which failed to rally Democrats who supported Ted Kennedy. Carter was hoping Kennedy would join him onstage in an enthusiastic display of solidarity, only to get a half-hearted handshake as a smattering of balloons trickled from the rafters. The message was clear: Carter didn't have a chance against Ronald Reagan.

2000 Democratic Convention -- While Al Gore was accepting the nomination at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, nu-metal band Rage Against The Machine was holding a protest concert across the street. The concert attracted protesters disillusioned with the two-party system and the candidates nominated by both parties. The concert ended when tensions escalated between the band's fans and police, as the sound was cut and rubber bullets were deployed.

2004 Democratic Convention -- Similar to the balloon snafu that plagued Jimmy Carter's speech, balloons failed to descend after John Kerry's speech. This time, though, the incident was caught on CNN, along with the sound of show producer Don Mischer's panicking voice getting picked up by the microphones: "What's happening to the balloons? There's nothing falling. What the f--- are you guys doing up there?!"

2012 Republican Convention -- Donald Trump is planning to invite several celebrity speakers to this year's convention, though it's hard to believe that any of them will give a speech as weird as the one Clint Eastwood gave four years ago. Eastwood improvised a speech in which he spoke to an empty chair that represented Barack Obama. The speech earned praise from the right and derision from the left, though Bill Maher did commend Eastwood for bringing spontaneity to the heavily scripted affair that political conventions have now become.


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