Friday, August 31, 2012

Reason #254: Conventions

Whenever the Democratic and Republican conventions are going on, you hear a lot about how contentious they used to be--the nominees were rarely chosen conclusively beforehand, and bitter divisions in the parties would often erupt, flaming brightly in full view of the voting public. But the conventions actually began life as a fix of an even worse system.

Originally, presidential nominees were chosen by a nominating caucus, which was basically just all a party's congressmen huddled together in one of those smoke-filled rooms you're always hearing about. As the 1800s crawled forward, and the nation's borders crawled westward, eventually the newer congressmen from the far western districts started to feel left out. There were some actual primaries in those days, but not enough to have a decisive impact--nominees could easily be, and generally were, chosen without a single regular citizen voting for them--to say nothing of the party's elected congressmen who lived thousands of miles away.

The Democratic Party was the first to hold a national convention, in 1832--while actual voting still had little to do with it, the new system at least gave every state's party leadership a chance to be heard. The Republicans followed in 1856; their first successful convention nomination came four years later with Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of which, as the Civil War was going on in 1864, there were technically three conventions--smaller Republican and Democratic conventions were held in the face of a large "National Union" convention, which was conducted by members of both parties rallying to Lincoln's side as Commander in Chief.

This system, amazingly, continued more or less unchallenged for the next century. The Democrats had probably the worst time of it, due to an infamous "2/3 rule" that required one to hold a supermajority of delegates to clinch the nomination. In 1924, the successful nomination of John W. Davis took a whopping 103 ballots, and the party's reluctance to nominate him was later justified when he lost to Calvin Coolidge, 54-28%.

The 2/3 rule did finally get overturned in 1932, thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That change sapped the southern states of much of their power in the Democratic Party, since the northern United States now had sufficient size and representation to ratify nominees without their support.

What finally produced the system we know today was the 1968 Democratic convention, where large numbers of anti-Vietnam War voters were unable to get their own man nominated due to Vice President Hubert Humphrey's support among the party establishment, despite not having competed in a single primary. Humphrey's nomination amidst the groundswell of anti-war sentiment led to fierce rioting in the streets of Chicago (where the convention was being held), which would've been bad enough if this wasn't also occurring in the heyday of televised convention coverage.

Fallout from the convention and the riots had a number of enormous consequences. As far as future nominations would be concerned, state primaries became the default system, wherein each state would be represented at the convention by a number of delegates corresponding to the state primary's vote results (though even that system was still kind of random and ass-backwards, and remains so today). The Republicans followed suit with their own successful nomination of Richard Nixon in 1972.

The Democratic Party's national image was in shambles, as well, which only served to encourage the convention's new role of tightly-choreographed coronation ceremony. The conventions of the 70s saw the birth of an era wherein the nominees were almost always decided by primary results well beforehand, and instead of convention speakers being determined by the various party factions jockeying for position and attention, now they were determined by political consultants--they became a showcase of the best and brightest, the better to present a positive image to the public.

While this has resulted, over time, in much less national interest in the conventions as appointment television, they can still have huge effects on the future of their parties. Pat Buchanan contributed to George Bush's loss in 1992 by devoting his primetime speech to the "culture war" against radical feminists and homosexuals. Then-Senator Obama's keynote address in 2004 served as his introduction to the nation, and kickstarted his own presidential campaign four years later. And Sarah Palin's speech in 2008 resulted in...well, lots more Sarah Palin.

The more polished and rehearsed the conventions become, ironically, the less people are bothering to pay attention to them, so given their tumultuous history it's possible we'll see more big shifts in the future. This week's Republican convention, by the way, was the second one in a row to be threatened by a hurricane--so clearly someone up high's getting pretty tired of them as well.

Further Reading

Presidential nominating convention - History

Republican National Convention - History

Democratic National Convention - History

1864 National Union National Convention

1968 Democratic National Convention

Culture War

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