Home The Washington Diplomat September 2008

History of National Conventions Checkered With Drama, Upsets

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Just when the dog days of summer should be abating, a fresh batch of hot air is on the way. It’s a presidential election year and that means political convention time. The Democratic and Rebublican national conventions are a uniquely American political pasttime that have a held a hallowed — and at times somewhat harrowing — place in U.S. history.

And although they have evolved from their early days of backdoor dealmaking and all-out brawls to today’s tightly controlled, almost theatrical productions, the conventions maintain an air of drama and intrigue that still produces a few surprises every four years.

This year’s Democratic National Convention is scheduled for August 25-28 in Denver, Colo., with the Republicans (also known as the “GOP,” or Grand Old Party) following close behind on September 1-4 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

The convention order is determined by which party holds the White House, with the opposition holding theirs first. Choice of a host city for each meeting is sometimes made to boost the party’s election chances in that state, and both Colorado and Minnesota are thought to be up for grabs this fall.

This year’s back-to-back schedule though is a bit unusual. There is normally at least a few weeks in between the two conventions to allow each party to define its message (and to give voters a breather). But changes in campaign finance laws that allow big fundraising and spending before the conventions and limit it afterward have caused both parties to push their cavalcades back.

Traditionally, the conventions were meant to choose party nominees for president, to form party policies, and to agree on such rules as the nomination process for the next election. But as the primaries and caucuses that determine each party’s nominee were held earlier every year, conventions turned into today’s public relations shows for the nominees rather than actual debates over whom should lead the party.

But it wasn’t always so — not by a long shot. In fact, you only have to go back to 1976 for some excitement. That year, Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination and entered the convention without a running mate, creating even more uncertainty about who would lead the party expected to win the White House after the Watergate debacle. That same year, the Republicans had their own drama when Ronald Reagan nearly unseated incumbent President Gerald Ford for the nomination, setting the stage for the “Reagan Revolution” four years later.

However, you have to go even further back to find conventions that were true contests — colossal nomination fights over candidates, ideological battles and outright violence. Before the information age and greater political openness, conventions were the domain of party insiders wrestling in proverbial smoke-filled rooms over whom to crown as their presidential nominee. In some years, a nominee was not even settled on until the final night of the convention — a last-minute decision that was often the result of much bargaining between the backers of top candidates. And it was not unusual for a politician who had no plans to run for president to be chosen as a compromise candidate by competing factions.

Indeed, a look back may show how any moves in Denver by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s supporters to make her part of a Barack Obama administration could play out.

The Democrats: A Big Tent of Chaos Democratic conventions started in 1832 after a congressionally run process for selecting presidential nominees was abandoned over disagreement between eastern and western states. But the introduction of conventions didn’t exactly translate into smooth sailing when it came to picking a candidate, with multiple balloting and brutal infighting more common than many people today may realize.

A key early factor in Democratic convention struggles was a rule requiring nominees to win the support of two-thirds of the delegates. (The measure was championed by Southerners to prevent unacceptable candidates from being forced through by the more populous North.)

The rule resulted in deadlocked conventions when no clear leader emerged early on, most notably in 1924. That meeting held a staggering 103 ballots for president and dragged on for 16 bruising (literally — several governors got into fistfights on the convention floor) days. In the end, delegates nominated an obscure compromise candidate — and eventual loser in the fall election — over the famous mayor of New York, Alfred E. Smith. Only party solidarity created by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s huge popularity allowed the “two-thirds rule” to be retired in 1936.

In 1948, President Harry Truman, who was struggling to lead the country in the aftermath of World War II, went into the Democratic convention with dismal national approval ratings. Things weren’t better for him within his own party either. Truman’s desegregation policies had angered conservative Southern “Dixiecrats,” who stormed out of the convention in protest, formed their own party and nominated Strom Thurmond, who won four states in that fall’s election.

Nevertheless Truman squeaked to victory in a legendary upset over Republican Thomas Dewey, but the convention’s turmoil had lasting effects. Many Dixiecrats permanently switched allegiances to the GOP, setting the stage for later Republican control of the South in presidential elections for years to come. Yet Truman’s bold move also helped to cement black support (previously split between the two parties) for Democrats for decades to come.

But it is the chaotic and disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that is perhaps the most relevant to today. That convention also took place amid bitter debate over an unpopular war and general discontent throughout the country. And like this year, the Democrats’ nomination process in 1968 was called into serious question.

Inside, the rancorous convention was laced with angry recriminations over the Vietnam War, while violent protests raged outside. Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a last-second candidate when President Lyndon B. Johnson unexpectedly withdrew from the race and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated) was nominated by party leaders despite not having run in a single primary and despite vocal opposition by anti-war Democrats, who saw the nomination by party bosses as a betrayal.

The resulting discontent led to reform of the Democrats’ nominating process and convention rules. Previous powerbrokers such as organized labor were marginalized, minorities and women delegates were empowered, and hot-button issues such as abortion were included in the party platform. But most important, primary elections were made the key determinant of who would be the presidential nominee. Before, primaries were just one part of the process, and the majority of convention delegates were appointed by other means, leading to charges in 1968 that the system was profoundly undemocratic.

In response, the Democrats made the primary, well, primary in determining their nominee, and by 1972 both parties had made the switch to a more open system. With ordinary voters taking the lead and party kingmakers no longer in charge, previously obscure politicians such as Carter and Bill Clinton were able to emerge in later conventions.

A key difference between the Democratic and Republican conventions, virtually unheard of before this year, is the Democrats’ involvement of “superdelegates” — party officials, officeholders and other insiders. Created to avoid another disastrous candidate such as George McGovern in 1972 or repeated losers like Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, superdelegates aren’t bound like regular delegates by the results of their state’s primary or caucus results in backing the candidate they believe has the best chance to win in November.

While superdelegates played a role in Walter Mondale’s nomination in 1984, it wasn’t until this year that they became a major factor in the process. With Obama and Clinton in a virtual dead heat earlier this year, superdelegates emerged (almost like the ghosts of long-dead kingmakers from years past) as highly controversial arbiters of the contest. Although the issue has died down with Obama clinching the delegate count to become the presumptive nominee, look for these superdelegates once again in Denver — they will likely be the true stars of the show.

The Republicans: It Pays to Be a Winner The GOP got a later start on conventions than the Democrats, holding its first in 1856 after the party was formed by anti-slavery activists. Though late to the convention scene, the Republicans were the first to broadcast their convention on TV in 1940.

Like the Democrats, Republicans appoint delegates to the conventions largely on the basis of primary and caucus results, with rules governing the appointments varying from state to state. But it clearly pays to be in a pro-GOP state if you want to go: The party rewards more delegates to states with higher numbers of elected Republican officeholders or those that voted for the previous Republican presidential nominee.

Although Democrats are famous for their fractiousness, the GOP has had its fair share of convention infighting. In 1872, a group of disaffected Republicans upset over corruption in President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration and post-Civil War Reconstruction policies in the South held their own convention with their own nominee. Despite joining ranks with Democrats in the fall election, the Liberal Republican Party lost and was eventually brought back into the Republican fold.

An even bigger split occurred in 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt mounted a strong challenge at the convention to his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt accused Taft of pandering to business interests, and when he failed to wrestle away the nomination at the convention, the two-term president abandoned the party altogether. Running under the banner of his own Progressive Party (also known as the “Bull Moose” party), Roosevelt won more votes than any third-party candidate in history, dooming Taft to defeat at the hands of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

A different ideological fight decades later also led to Republican defeat, but had a more lasting effect. In 1964, hawkish Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and beat back mainstream Republicans for the nomination. Although he was handily defeated by President Lyndon B. Johnson, conservatism emerged as the core Republican ideology, inspiring legions of activists who would propel Reagan to victory in the 1980s.

More recently, the 1992 Republican convention disintegrated into a debate over a “culture war” in the United States when firebrand Pat Buchanan (who had mounted a strong challenge to moderate President George H.W. Bush for the nomination) delivered an address to the convention that directly challenged the socially moderate, pro-business Republicans who still led the party. Buchanon lost the nomination, and Bush lost the general election, but as in 1964, conservatives asserted their control over the party. Just two years later, Newt Gingrich led a “Republican Revolution” that swept the GOP to control of Congress for a remarkable 12 years.

Waiting in the Wings Even if this year’s conventions provide no real fireworks or struggles for party control, pay attention to the details. In 1996, the wife of Republican nominee Bob Dole waded into the audience at the GOP convention in San Diego, catapulting Elizabeth Dole to national fame and later, a seat in the U.S. Senate. And in 2004, an obscure state legislator from Illinois delivered a speech at the Democratic convention that was so eloquent it made him a household name, albeit a highly unusual name. That man? Barack Obama.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999