Conventions, Party Nominating

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CONVENTIONS, PARTY NOMINATING, take place at the state and national levels to nominate party candidates, and shape party strategies. Part carnival, part revival, and part business meeting, these colorful conclaves have been both the stuff of political legend and forums for serious debate. Great battles have broken out in these quintessentially American institutions over particular policies and specific candidates, as well as over broader tensions between democratic and elite rule, between substance and style, between leading and following the people.

First Conventions

Originally, state legislators and party bosses nominated party candidates. Nationally, from 1800 to 1824, the Democratic-Republicans nominated presidential and vice-presidential nominees with a congressional caucus. On 26 September 1831 the populist, suspicious, Anti-Masonic Party convened in Baltimore the first national convention ever, and nominated William Wirt of Maryland to run for president. In December 1831 delegates from eighteen states met, also in Baltimore, to nominate Henry Clay as the standard bearer of the National Republican Party. In May 1832 three hundred Democratic-Republicans met to renominate Andrew Jackson as president, and to nominate Martin Van Buren for vice president. The delegates adopted a rule that nominees must be nominated by two-thirds of the delegates. This Democratic National Convention has convened quadrennially since 1832—and the "two-thirds" rule handcuffed Democrats until 1936, granting a minority virtual veto power over nominees. The Republican Party has met regularly since 1856.

Until the spread of primaries in the second half of the twentieth century, state conventions nominated state candidates as well as delegates to the national conventions. The national conventions were high points in the American political calendar. Party activists from all over the United States met at sites that became legendary, such as Chicago's Wigwam or New York's Madison Square Garden. The credentials committee would finalize the delegates and alternates, and often adjudicate delicate intrastate delegate disputes. The permanent organization committee would settle on the convention leadership. The rules committee would update the procedures for decision-making and nominating. And the platform or resolutions committee would draft a party manifesto.

As the committee work progressed, excitement would mount. A keynote address would set the tone for the convention. Floor fights could break out over seating particular delegations or over controversial platform planks. The delegates would present their credentials, and the florid nominating speeches would begin. Often advancing states' "favorite sons," these speeches made every Democrat a Jackson, a Jefferson, a Washington, every Republican a Lincoln, a Jefferson, and a Washington, and every politician a statesman.

The nominations would commence in a sea of red, white, and blue bunting, amid a chorus of huzzahs for favored candidates, and for particular states. Conventions became famous for the great pageantry and oratorical excess with which "the great state" of Louisiana or Arkansas or Texas or Rhode Island could be hailed.

Nineteenth-Century Conventions: Volatile, Unpredictable, Exciting

At these conventions "dark horses" could emerge, as did James Knox Polk, selected on the ninth ballot at the Democratic National Convention in 1844. Often, the actual nomination came as a surprise because nominees were not necessarily in attendance. The nominee's Acceptance Letters became hasty but quite crucial marriage contracts between suitors who had already publicly announced their betrothal.

The unpredictability and the high stakes made for some volatile conventions—and some classic political drama. In 1848 rival delegations from New York clashed over the slavery issue at the Democratic convention. The "Hunkers," who "hankered after spoils," wanted to placate Southerners; the Barnburners, who were "radical enough to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats," supported the Wilmot Proviso, which challenged the extension of slavery into the territories ceded after the Mexican war. Democrats tried to split the difference, and give each faction half of New York's delegate total. Both sides rejected the compromise and no New York delegation was seated. Twelve years later, in 1860, the Democratic party splintered over the slavery issue at the party's convention in Charleston, South Carolina—and two Democrats ended up running for president, former Vice President John C. Breckinridge, and "the Little Giant," Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Slavery equally stymied the Democrats' opponents. In 1852 the Whig Party only settled on a candidate on the fifty-third ballot. General Winfield Scott could not unite the party and the Whigs soon collapsed. The new Republican Party, while firm in its opposition to slavery, also had trouble choosing a nominee. In 1860 the convention bypassed such an obvious choice as New York Governor William Henry Seward, turning instead on the third ballot to an Illinoisian who had served in the Congress only one term before losing, Abraham Lincoln. "My name is new in the field, and I suppose I am not the first choice of a very great many," Lincoln wrote to a supporter explaining his convention strategy in 1860. "Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others—to leave them in a mood to come to us if they shall be compelled to give up their first love."

Even as the Republicans came to dominate national politics, they were often divided. In 1872 "Mugwump" Liberal Republican reformers, disgusted with the growing corruption in the party, bolted and joined the Democrats, albeit temporarily and unsuccessfully. Eight years later, another "dark horse," James A. Garfield, emerged on the thirty-sixth ballot, and was paired with a more loyalist party "Stalwart" vice-presidential nominee, Chester A. Arthur.

In 1912 the Republican Party split once again over the elites' power in the party. Former president Theodore Roosevelt tried to capture the nomination by winning primaries against his handpicked successor, President William Howard Taft. "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord," Roosevelt told a frenzied crowd of supporters the night before the Republican convention. Roosevelt had the passion and the people, but Taft had the votes. Most delegates remained beholden to the bosses. Taft won, and Roosevelt stormed out of the convention hall—and toward his run on the Progressive ticket for president.

The Democrats' great, post–Civil War division emerged over the free silver issue. In 1896 an obscure Congressman from Omaha, Nebraska, gave a thunderous speech. William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" oration catapulted him to the nomination and led to a fusion of sorts between the silverite Populists and the Democrats, even as it shattered the Democratic Party with a brutal battle over the currency plank in the platform.

On this, and so many issues, the Democratic Party was also polarized regionally. The 1832 "two-thirds" rule disproportionately favored southerners with their segregationist agenda, even as northern immigrants were streaming into the party. These tensions—and the rule—set the stage for the longest and arguably most divisive of conventions in the Democrats' long and contentious history. In 1924 John W. Davis of West Virginia secured the nomination of a battered and divided party on the one-hundred-third ballot.

During this time, even as they were more active, candidates did not address the conventions. Only in 1932, trying to demonstrate that his administration would offer a New Deal to the America people, Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to stand on ceremony. Dispensing with the ritualized notification ceremony, Roosevelt chartered a plane and went to Chicago. His dramatic acceptance speech inspired the delegates and, thanks to the magic of radio, the American people. In using the convention as a dramatic stage setting, Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the future. Increasingly, the balance of power in conventions shifted from parties to candidates, the function of conventions shifted from decision-making to ratification—and many began to wonder about the importance of these once-essential gatherings.

The Conventions Upstaged

The spread of primaries upstaged the conventions. The democratic initiative that allowed more and more people to choose their party's nominees spread throughout the twentieth century. In 1932 only a handful of states relied on primaries. By 1960 John F. Kennedy's successful campaign strategy used visible victories in critical primaries to build momentum. Since 1952 nominees have been selected on the first ballot. At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, although a majority of Democratic primary voters had chosen one antiwar candidate or another, delegates nevertheless defeated an antiwar resolution. The resulting soul-searching, exacerbated by the ugly riots in the streets of Chicago, led to a series of creative attempts to make the convention as representative of the American people as possible.

As the Democrats struck the McGovern-Fraser commission, followed by others, to fiddle with the formulas of delegate selection, television also transformed the conventions. Traditional political conventions were too colorful, too chaotic, too unruly for television. Conventions became more sanitized and more elaborately choreographed, precisely at the point when primaries allowed nominees to know their status months in advance. By the early 2000s there was a vigorous debate over the value of conventions, and the networks had dramatically curtailed their coverage. Many considered the conventions made-for-television pseudoevents, long and tedious advertisements for one party or another. Still, with the drama of nominating the vice-presidential candidate, with the great pageantry of the nominee's acceptance speech, with the diversity of thousands of delegates assembled from across the United States, conventions remained grand exercises in participatory democracy, and classic—and very revealing—American political institutions.


Beck, Paul Allen, and Frank J. Sorauf. Party Politics in America. 7th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Polakoff, Keith I. Political Parties in American History. New York: Wiley, 1981.

Polsby, Nelson W., and Aaron Wildavsky. Presidential Elections: Contemporary Strategies of American Electoral Politics. 8th ed. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Reichley, A. James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Troy, Gil. See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991, 1996.


See alsoCaucuses, Congressional ; Free Silver ; Platform, Party ; Political Parties ; Taft-Roosevelt Split .

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Conventions, Party Nominating

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Conventions, Party Nominating