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A History of Contested Political Conventions

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March 27th, 2016

(Guest commentary by David Simmons)

As a presidential historical junkie I’m following this year’s GOP nominating process with many emotions including fascination and discouragement.  We appear to be watching history in the making. One possible outcome of this year’s GOP primaries and caucuses is a contested nominating convention where no candidate has enough delegate votes going into the convention to secure a first ballot nomination.  Here’s a quick history you may all enjoy about contested conventions.  For this purpose, I’m defining a contested convention as requiring more than one ballot to select a nominee.  

Contested nominating conventions are unusual, but not uncommon for either of the major parties.  Since the founding of both political parties (1832 for the Democratic Party, and 1856 for the Republican Party, or GOP) a total of 90 nominating conventions have been held. Of these 90 conventions, 26 – or nearly 30% have been contested conventions.  The Democrats have had 16 contested conventions out of 48, and the GOP has had 10 out of 42 conventions. They seem rare to us because the last two contested conventions for either party was 1952 for the Democrats, and 1948 for the Republicans.  In the modern political era where a large majority of delegates for each party is chosen through primaries and caucuses, a contested convention has not occurred.  (In 1976 neither Gerald Ford, the incumbent president nor Ronald Reagan had enough committed delegates to claim a majority heading into the GOP convention; however Ford prevailed prior to the first ballot in securing 52% of the delegate (votes).

When a contested convention does occur, the candidate with the highest number of delegates after the first ballot has only won a minority of times.  For the Democrats, the leading candidate after the first ballot secured the nomination 7 out of 16 times.  For the Republicans, the leading candidate only secured the nomination 3 out of 10 times.  

When a candidate is ultimately selected in a contested convention, it doesn’t appear to be fatal for the party’s nominee.  For the Democrats in 6 out of 16 contested conventions the eventual nominee has won the presidency.  For the Republicans the odds have been even better – their candidate has won the general election 5 out of 10 times.  Interestingly, in only 3 out of 26 contested conventions has the leading candidate for either party after the first ballot eventually secured the presidency – Buchanan in 1856, Cleveland in 1884, and FDR in 1932.  In the other 7 occasions where the contested nominee has won the general election, he was not the leading candidate in the first round of balloting.  

Some very strong presidents have come out of contested conventions.  These include Abraham Lincoln (1860), FDR (1932), Woodrow Wilson (1912), and James Polk (1844). They have also resulted in some weak presidents – Franklin Pierce (1852), James Buchanan (1856), and Warren G. Harding (1920), but in whole the contested conventions appear to have strengthened the party rather than destroying it.  

Most of the contested conventions were decided after a handful of ballots, but a few went on for many rounds.  Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most divisive for the country occurred in 1860 when the Democrats failed to select a nominee during their first convention held in Charleston, S.C.  Prior to the first ballot most of the delegates from southern states walked out in protest of the party platform.  The remaining delegates went through 56 rounds of voting without selecting a nominee.  A later convention that summer held in Baltimore without the southern delegates nominated Sen. Stephen Douglas.  The protesting delegates held their own convention later in Baltimore and selected John Breckenridge as their presidential nominee.  The honor for highest number of ballots still belongs to the 1924 Democratic Convention where John W. Davis was selected on the 103rd ballot.  

Another famous but not contested convention, based on my definition of multiple ballots, was held in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt had the largest number of committed delegates and landslide primary victories over the incumbent president (and his handpicked successor), William Howard Taft.  Roosevelt had won primaries in 9 out of 12 states – eight by wide margins, and arrived at the convention with strong support.  However, 36 states did not hold primaries and selected delegates in state conventions.  A fight broke out during the certification of delegates with Roosevelt claiming fraud.  When the anti-Roosevelt delegates were ultimately seated many of the Roosevelt delegates abstained from voting out of protest and Taft was selected on the first ballot. In retaliation California governor Hiram Johnson quickly organized the Progressive Party’s convention several weeks later that nominated Roosevelt as their nominee.  The Democrats had their own contested election in 1912 with 46 ballots required before Woodrow Wilson was selected as the nominee.  In the general election Roosevelt came in second to Wilson with 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, the highest number for a third political party since before the Civil War.  Taft, the incumbent president, finished third with 23% of the popular vote and 8 electoral votes.  Interestingly, the only two states Taft carried were Vermont and Utah.

My favorite contested convention was held by the GOP in 1880. James Garfield, who started out the convention as a nominator for the incumbent president Rutherford B. Hayes, ended up as the party nominee after 36 ballots.  He had no interest in even running for president before the convention became completely deadlocked. If fact, Garfield only had 1 vote headed into the 34th ballot.  Former president U.S. Grant had the largest number of delegates on every ballot until the 36th when Garfield won a majority. As part of a bargain, Chester Arthur from NY was selected as the VP nominee. Arthur had never held political office but was one of the leaders of the NY political machine who were behind Grant. Garfield got Arthur to break from his boss, Sen. Roscoe Conkling, and accept the the VP nomination. Less than a year later, of course, Arthur became president after the assassination of Garfield.

In all of my own reading of U.S. political history, I can’t come close to finding another candidate quite like Trump.  He may well spell the end of the GOP as we know it today.  But both major political parties have proven themselves to be amazing resilient and have reinvented themselves multiple times.  It will be fascinating, if not utterly discouraging, to watch how this ultimately unfolds.

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