The prospect that the battle for the Republican nomination might actually be decided at the convention causes this political observer to ponder the history of this American institution.
The first national political conventions were held in the run-up to the 1832 election. Prior to that, congressional caucuses had picked the nominees, but it was felt that a party convention would be a more democratic way of proceeding. The very first convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party, who ran a candidate in the 1832 election and actually carried one state--Vermont, thus starting Vermont's long and glorious history of rugged independence. (See my post of 5/8/08 for ten interesting things about Vermont.) The Democrats also held a convention for the 1832 election.
In 1840 the Whigs held their first convention, nominating William Henry Harrison over Henry Clay. The rules worked against Clay, as they required that all the votes from a particular state would go to the candidate who received the majority of delegates from that state. Clay's better overall support was thus diminished, and Harrison prevailed on the 5th ballot, after Clay had won the first 4.
The role of the political convention came into full bloom in 1844, when the Democrats could not settle on a nominee, and then turned to Polk on the 9th ballot as a compromise candidate. He was selected unanimously at that point, showing the usefulness of having people get together, listen to each other, and try to reach a consensus.
A similar result was had in 1852, when the Democrats were again deadlocked. Franklin Pierce, who hadn't received a single vote until the 35th ballot, was finally nominated on the 49th!
The 1856 fight for the Democratic nomination was again eventful. Buchanan led on every ballot, but it took 17 ballots to nominate him. Part of the problem was that a 2/3 rule was in effect, requiring the winner to have 2/3 of the ballots. Had it been a simple majority, Buchanan would have had it on the 6th ballot. It is noteworthy that this was the first time a sitting president (Pierce) seeking the nomination had been denied it by his party.
The 1880 fight for the Republican nomination was one of the most interesting such fights ever. The GOP had 3 candidates--Grant, Blaine, and Sherman, each with a strong group of supporters at the convention. A tremendous pre-convention fight took place over whether the unit rule should be used. This rule, requiring all delegates from a state to vote for the candidate preferred by the majority of that state's delegates, greatly favored Grant who controlled the three largest delegations. Ultimately, after much back-and-forth negotiating, a compromise was reached which threw out the unit rule, and in exchange Grant's man was permitted to remain as chairman of the national committee, despite his high-handed efforts to thwart the consideration of the unit rule.
With each delegate now free to vote his or her own conscience, the convention deadlocked between the 3 main candidates, until on the 36th ballot the anti-Grant forces united behind James Garfield, and he was chosen as the nominee.
Eugene Roseboom, in his wonderful book "The History of Presidential Elections", calls the 1912 battle for the Republican nomination "the greatest pre-convention struggle in American history". Teddy Roosevelt had installed Taft as his successor in 1908, but was disappointed in Taft's performance and came back from his overseas travels to contest Taft for the 1912 nomination.
Taft controlled the convention machinery, under rules put into place ironically by TR himself 4 years earlier to ensure Taft's nomination. 254 of the 1,078 convention seats were in dispute, and the national committee, controlled by Taft, had to decide who to seat. The decision of the national committee was to seat the Taft delegates. TR's supporters forced the issue on the convention floor, but the delegates whose seats were in dispute were allowed to vote on their own cases, causing Taft to win 567-507. Since the number of seats being voted on was more than this difference, it is obvious that Taft prevailed only by these heavy-handed, anti-democratic tactics.
1920 was the year of the famous so-called "smoke-filled room", which is the way the history books we read in school always described it. The connotation is clearly meant to be a negative one, like there was something seedy or under-handed about the way Harding was selected for the Republican nominee. However, a new biography of Harding by John Dean disputes this narrative; Dean says that Harding's plan all along was to hang in as a dark horse, and then push for the nomination when the convention deadlocked among the main candidates. This is in fact what happened, and Harding was nominated on the 10th ballot.
The 1924 Democratic Convention was the low point in the history of conventions. A nobody named John W. Davis was nominated on the 103rd ballot. He was a conservative, nominated by a convention dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, which was violently anti-Catholic and hence violently against the candidacy of New York's Al Smith. Disgruntled liberals went their separate way by supporting the Progressive candidate, LaFollette, who won Wisconsin in the general election.
In 1936 the Democrats finally threw out their century-old "two-thirds rule", which had occasionally denied the nomination to a candidate with the majority of votes, since it required a two-thirds majority to win the nomination.
Another great pre-convention fight took place in 1952, with Eisenhower and Taft doing battle just as TR and another Taft had 40 years earlier. The dispute again was over a number of delegate seats which were in dispute between the Ike and Taft forces. However, unlike in 1912, here the Ike forces were successful in getting through a motion that delegations opposed by more then 1/3 of the national committee should not vote on the credentials of any other delegation. With this issue settled, the full convention then overruled the credentials committee, who had seated the Taft delegates, and seated the Ike delegates in every case.
The Democratic convention in 1952 took 3 ballots to nominate Adlai Stevenson, and I think I am correct in saying this was the last time it took more than a single ballot to select a presidential nominee. Thus it happens that just when I was becoming aware and interested in the presidential nominating process, the last meaningful political convention was held. Now they are nothing but shows, which conduct no serious business, but rather are carefully tailored to fit into prime time and designed to get their message out to the wider public and drum up support and enthusiasm for their chosen candidates.
Eugene Roseboom blames TV for rendering the convention obsolete. He says that in 1952, when the public was first able to watch on TV, they didn't like what they saw:
"The noisy inattention of delegates, the artificial demonstrations, the banal oratory, the parliamentary tangles and public quarreling, the mysterious deals and shifting of votes behind the camera's eye, the "show-off" delegates who demanded polls of their delegations just to give themselves a brief TV appearance, the hectic carnival atmosphere--all were disillusioning to citizens who, before the TV era, had thought of a convention as a kind of deliberative assembly. Radio had revealed unlovely aspects, but the camera was devastating."
And so, we see that TV killed the convention, whose useful life was 120 years--from 1832 to 1952. And just as it killed the convention, TV seems to be ruining, or at least adversely affecting, the primary/caucus system which has taken the place of the convention. How a candidate comes across on TV seems to be more important than any serious leadership quality or knowledge of government. Voters vote who have never met the candidates, who have no idea of the candidate's personal character, or lack thereof, and who are therefore totally unqualified to participate in a nominating process.
In our current system, candidates learn to demagogue complex issues with 5-second sound bites. Never do we get to hear a candidate's vision for the future; in fact, there seems to be practically no thought at all about the future direction of the country, just hammering at each other about short-term issues and current events. More and more candidates engage in negative advertising, rather than talk about their own positive attributes. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said a prominent Republican governor told him that he (the governor) asked Mitt Romney 3 or 4 times why he wanted to be president, and Romney never could articulate any reason why he wanted the job; apparently Romney has no vision for our future, and this is the guy who is leading the race!
Another discouraging aspect of the primary system is how negative the candidates feel they need to be to get the nomination. We have candidates trashing each other, often on the flimsiest of grounds, as when Rick Santorum got assailed because of his vote for the No Child Left Behind law. Here was an example of someone trying to be nonpartisan, as we say we want our politicians to be more often, and yet his fellow candidates castigated him, years later, for the vote. Disgraceful!
Another failure of the modern system is the irrelevancy of party platforms. Time was when the debate over the party platform was considered to be about as significant as the choice of a nominee. After all, the platform was what told the public what the party stood for, and the candidate was expected to run on that platform. Now, the platform has been condemned to irrelevancy. It is adopted, and then promptly ignored by all.
I say let's make more use of the "smoke-filled room", i.e., let's give people who actually know the candidates, and know their character, the ability to have greater say and deliberate together in an appropriate setting, like a convention. And let's restore the platform to a position of relevance. If party leaders could get together with candidates in a private setting, with no media present, a frank discussion could be had and some real insight could be gained as to which candidate was best suited to be the party's nominee. With a possible impasse in the Republican race right now, maybe 2012 will be the year we finally return to a saner way of picking our candidates.