Since today is the first day of the Republican Convention, I thought we should take a look at the the history of the political convention as a means of nominating candidates. This is inherently tied in with political parties as a whole, which the founding fathers were not a fan of. Jefferson is famously quoted as saying “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” However, eleven years later, Jefferson won the presidency as the head of an organized party. What changed? As much as the founders tried to avoid political parties, they inherently fell into them. Political scientists have found this is the trend with most countries. Presidential candidates were selected by Congressional caucuses, which did an end run around most of the American electorate. Members of Congress from the party informally nominated who they liked for president, which defeated the purpose of the executive branch being independent of the the legislative branch. This started a movement to “slay King Caucus” as it became known. In 1824, the candidate of the caucus did not have the support of the population as the face of the American voter was changing. The new western states did not require men to own property to vote, and the idea that the landed elites were choosing who to put up for president rankled. So many candidates just ran anyway and it became a free for all. All of the other candidates who ran, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, won more states than the caucus crowned candidate, William H. Crawford.
The first nominating convention was held on September 25, 1831 by the Anti-Masonic party, a party which longer exists in the American political landscape. The party delegates met in Baltimore, Maryland and chose a presidential nominee as well as a formal party “platform” or statement of principles. This was the first time this had ever happened. The Anti-Masonic party did not go anywhere, but the Democratic party under Andrew Jackson liked the idea of the openness of the convention process and took it up in 1832. The Whigs followed suit, and from there the conversion process was born. At the time, powerful people and party bosses around the country selected the delegates to the convention. These were picked in secret, and the delegates were hand picked to vote how they were told. It was not until 1968 and the reforms headed by Senator George McGovern, which ended what he called “presidential selection by middle-aged, middle-class white men.”
These reforms shifted the power to the state primaries, which then determined the percentage of delegates from each state which would vote for the nominee. Some states are proportional, which means each candidate gets the percentage of delegates that corresponds with the percentage of votes they got in the primary. For example, if Candidate 1 got 25% and Candidate 2 got 75% in the state primary and that state had 16 delegates, Candidate 1 would get 4 delegates and Candidate 2 would get 12 delegates. Other states are winner take all. So if a candidate wins by even a small percentage, they get all the delegates for that state. These new rules were implemented in the 1972 Democratic convention and the Republicans followed suit.
Before these reforms, who was being put to run for president and vice president was a mystery to the general population. There were dark horse candidates who would emerge as the chosen one. James K Polk was not supposed to the be the candidate, but hoped to be chosen as vice president. However, because of his position on the annexation of Texas the favorite, Martin Van Buren, bowed out and Polk became the man and went on to become the 11th president. There could also be days and days of balloting to decide on the platform and the candidate. The longest period of balloting was in the 1924 Democratic convention where there were 15 men vying to be the candidate and delegates got into fist fights on the convention floor. Unbelievably, the governor of Kentucky and the governor of Colorado mixed up on the floor. The main issue of contention was whether to denounce the Ku Klux Klan- supported by urban Catholic delegates and opposed by rural Protestant delegates. After 16 long days and 103 ballots, the leading contenders dropped out and the nominee was was John W. Davis of West Virginia. He lost.
The man nominated rarely showed up the convention. There was a strange tradition that if you came to the convention that meant you wanted the job and was therefore unfit to be president. This is a tradition that stemmed from the founders again. An example of this is Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to be president very badly, but refused to campaign openly. He sent his surrogate, James Madison, to do all his campaign work. The man who broke this tradition was Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt had been struck down by polio in 1921, and was paralyzed from the waist down. There were lingering doubts he would be fit to take the office of president. Roosevelt flew to Chicago in a dramatic gesture and made a personal address to the delegates to accept their nomination. Ever since then, a new tradition has been set.
Conventions are a strange, noisy uniquely American process. The RNC will be on all week then the DNC will get their turn. Happy watching!
Sources available on request