Convention History: Not All Sunshine and Lollypops

Jeff Alworth

Campaign history is a small eddy in the current of American history, and convention history an even smaller niche.  So it's forgiveable when people fail to recall some of the great battles in convention history.  Sometimes the battles happen when the party has little chance of winning, sometimes when it seems like a sure bet.  You can see why: in down years, politicos are maneuvering for the future or trying to wrest control away from the leaders responsible for down fortunes.  When it's a Democratic year, the scrapping happens between power players who want the tiller and their supporters who stand to rise with a new administration.  I spent the summer looking through some of this history, and it appears that there has never been much correlation between the intensity of the intramural squabble and the outcome in November.  Here's a couple of examples that highlight the point.

1924  – Longest Convention
1924 The result of the ’24 convention wasn’t much to remember—forgotten Democrat John Davis managed only 29% of the vote in a three-way battle with Calvin Coolidge and Progressive Robert LaFollette in the general.  But it did break a bunch of records.  Ballot after ballot, California’s William McAdoo was locked in a battle with (gasp!)  Catholic New Yorker Al Smith (the 1828 nominee).  The Ku Klux Klan opposed Smith, and their involvment was so contentious that governors of Colorado and Kentucky got into fistfights over whether antiKlan members would carry their state banners.  Eventually, after nine days and 103 ballots, the main contenders released their ballots and the compromise candidate, Woodrow Wilson’s Solicitor-General, was finally selected.

1932  – A New Deal
File this under  “they don’t make conventions like they used to.”  The delegates met that year in Chicago, and the preliminaries delayed voting until 4:30 in the morning.  It was an all-New York affair, with Al Smith once again trying to get the nomination, but trailing Franklin Roosevelt in early voting.  Although FDR had the upper hand, he couldn’t beat Smith.  Delegates adjourned at 9:15 in the morning so the candidates could work the various delegations.  FDR managed to flip California’s John Nance Garner, the Speaker of the House.  He released his delegates and FDR won.  Still, the bitter Smith, who had had a falling out with FDR in ’28, didn’t release his delegates, denying Roosevelt a unanimous win.

The '32 election is particularly instructive for people who want to draw analogies.  It was one of those sure-bet moments, and passions were off the charts.  The fact that Smith was so angry that he wouldn't releases his delegates had little effect on the outcome of the election.  It's hard to see how today's vote at the convention, which will surely produce a nomination for Obama, could affect the votes of Americans in November.  As in '32, there's too much to lose.

Photo credit: Washington Post

  • LT (unverified)

    Jeff, although this is about a GOP convention, it has an Oregon connection.

    In 1940 the GOP ticket was Willkie/McNary (think Perot / Hatfield to have a sense of what a ticket that was).

    Oregon's McNary only lost the "longest serving Oregon US Senator" title to Hatfield shortly before Mark Hatfield retired.

    Presidential nomination went to something like 6 ballots, multiple candidates. When I did a term paper on this convention, I discovered a few things. 1)There was a state delegation caucusing off the floor when someone came in and told them "it is moving pretty fast--if you want to vote, you'd better get out here!" 2) In one of those proverbial pre-television scenes, a delegation was jumping up and down trying to be recognized when the chair said "Is there any objection to immediately proceeding to a 6th ballot?". Whether they were truly not seen or deliberately ignored, the gavel came down on "hearing none, so ordered" and the 6th ballot decided the nomination. 3) The term paper required using original sources, so I spent a lot of time with microfilm. McNary's home town paper (either the Statesman or the Capitol Journal) interviewed McNary about being chosen as the seasoned VP for an insurgent presidential nominee. The headline was REGARDS IT AS A PARTY CHORE.

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    William McAdoo has a building in Portland named after him.

  • ben (unverified)

    Garner was from Texas, not California. FYI. ...Best known for saying, from firsthand experience, that "the vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss."

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    One of the things to keep in mind is that, until 1936, the Democratic nominee had to receive two-thirds of the delegate votes to win the nomination. That's the real reason that Al Smith and John Nance Garner were able to stymie FDR for several ballots even though FDR had a clear lead over both men from the beginning.

    Running for reelection in 1936, FDR was able to change the rules to a simple majority, which it has been ever since. I don't think either party has gone past the second ballot since 1952.

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    Good point, Jack. That was one of the reasons the nomination was occasionally very hard to get. Still, 103 ballots is pretty amazing for the candidate Democrats consider the greatest president in history. Obama could do worse than be associated with him.

    LT, on the ignominious side, there's this narrative:

    Democrats were wholly divided. Meeting in Charleston, SC, northern and southern Dems split almost immediately. Southern Dems called for a platform affirming and extending the right to hold slaves. Northern Dems, led by Stephen Douglas, refused the pro-slavery platform, and the delegations of eight slave-holding states walked out of the convention. After 54 ballots, they concluded they couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority vote, they adjourned without a nominee (for I believe the only time).

    When they met again two months later in Baltimore (again), they met without the Southern states. Although they still couldn’t get the 2/3s majority of all Democratic delegates, they decided to nominate Douglas when they got 2/3s of those present.

    The Southern Democrats met after the Northern Dems and nominated Kentucky’s John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. They nominated Joseph Lane, a Senator from newly-minted Oregon for Vice President. Lane had been appointed to govern the Oregon Territory in 1848. He had only been a senator one year when he got the nomination. Lane’s political career was damaged by his pro-slavery position, and he retired to the Umpqua Valley and stayed out of politics. Lane County is named for him; one of his sons served as a US Congressman, and another as a US Senator.


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