Earlier 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 — another term that has been much discussed this year — 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 — an exceedingly undemocratic process. This didn’t bother the founders, who had little interest in — and indeed a healthy fear of — 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 — 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 — even though he sent four telegraphic messages to that effect — 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 — a grainy shot of the delegates on the convention floor still exists — 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 — 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 — who knew how to spellbind a live audience — 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 — who would eventually become the first Catholic presidential nominee in 1928 — 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 — and Donald Trump — 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.”
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 — and faithful Republican — 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 — still a power in the party — 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 — and everyone else — 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 — 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.