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Call from Above: Wendell Willkie was the dark horse at the 1940 GOP convention, but after supporters roared his name from on high, he won on the sixth ballot.

Déjà Vu: Unconventional Wisdom

By Richard Brookhiser
11/14/2016 • American History Magazine

In March, after Ted Cruz and John Kasich won big home-state primaries, it suddenly looked as if no Republican candidate would come to the national GOP convention in Cleveland with a majority of delegates. The contest would go to a second ballot or be brokered by party elders. No way, warned front-runner Donald Trump. If he came to Cleveland with the most votes, a majority or not, Trump expected to be crowned. Otherwise, “I think you’d have riots,” the New Yorker quoted Trump as saying. “I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people.” But in April, Cruz and Kasich withdrew, and prospects for a long, hot convention vanished.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders was fighting Hillary Clinton for every Democratic delegate. In May, angry Sanders supporters disrupted a Nevada state convention they said had been rigged against them.

American political parties have been making noise, history, and presidential nominations at days-long gatherings of delegates, alternates, journalists, and hangers-on for over 180 years. But conventions are nothing sacred; they arose from the culture of the 1830s and no longer serve any practical purpose apart from boosting TV ratings.

Floor Access: Lincoln’s 1860 triumph in Chicago. (©Old Paper Studios /Alamy Stock Photo)

George Washington’s presidential campaigns, in 1789 and 1792, were zero sweat. The office had been created with him in mind, and the Electoral College twice bestowed it on him unanimously. Between 1796 and 1816, the men aspiring to fill Washington’s shoes were picked by caucuses of congressmen belonging to the first two parties—the Federalists and the Republicans (Jeffersonians). This circumscribed method was convenient: Only in Congress did politicians from around the country meet regularly. The technique also suited Thomas Jefferson, who liked to pretend that he was doing congressional Republicans’ will, when in fact he was directing them.

Critics condemned the caucus system as secretive and elitist. “They write private letters to each other, but do nothing to give direction to the public mind,” one Federalist complained of his party’s congressmen. “Can good come out of such a system?”

The increasing democratization of American life and the Second Great Awakening, a nationwide religious revival of the early 1800s, revolutionized the nomination process. Americans seeking salvation gathered at huge meetings in halls and in the open air; why not pick presidential candidates the same way? In September 1831, the first national political convention met in the Baltimore Athenaeum, at what is now the site of Maryland Institute College of Art. The conveners were the Anti-Masons, a party devoted to exposing alleged Masonic misdeeds. When Chief Justice John Marshall declined their nomination, the Anti-Masons tapped former Attorney General William Wirt, a lapsed Mason who now called the organization “a wicked conspiracy.” Wirt ended up carrying only Vermont, and the Anti-Masons petered out. But the convention concept was adopted by all parties, major and minor.

Then, as now, conventions voted by state, sometimes calling the roll geographically north to south, more often alphabetically. If a first ballot produced no winner, balloting continued until some pol prevailed; for a century, a Democrat needed a supermajority of two-thirds to win. Conventions also approved platforms, or statements of party principle, and ruled on delegate eligibility—ordinarily, housekeeping matters but, in some closely divided situations, bitterly contested.

Conventions developed a lingo: a pol making a surprise late surge was a “dark horse.” The impulse to rally to a candidate apparently on the verge of winning was a “stampede.” Shrewd campaign managers learned to manipulate auditorium layouts and logistics. At the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, a Lincoln man in charge of seating separated New York’s delegation, solid for front-runner William Seward, and Pennsylvania’s, pledged to Simon Cameron. The idea was to keep Lincoln’s rivals from communicating easily; after Cameron dropped out, Pennsylvania swung not to Seward but to Lincoln, who won on the third ballot.

The 1940 GOP convention in Philadelphia was decided in the galleries, not on the floor. Samuel Pryor, in charge of arrangements, packed the bleachers with supporters of dark horse and former Democrat Wendell Willkie. Shouts of “We want Willkie,” raining on the delegates below, broke regular Republicans’ resolve. Willkie won on the sixth ballot.

Bull Moose Birth: At the 1912 Republican convention in Chicago, police had to stop angry Roosevelt backers storming the rostrum. (Library of Congress)

In bad-luck years, a party convenes so divided that no artfulness or guile can hold it together. The front-runner going into the April 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston was Stephen Douglas, who had been working both sides of the slavery issue. To please Southerners, Douglas urged that popular votes settle the status of slavery in territories; to woo the North, he scorned a pro-slavery vote in the Kansas Territory as rigged. Southerners disdained Douglas’s maneuvers. He led for 57 ballots but never reached two-thirds. Exhausted Democrats recessed for two months, then reassembled in Baltimore and declared Douglas their nominee. Angry Southerners, meeting in a parallel convention, nominated Vice President John Breckinridge. After Lincoln beat his Democratic rivals, Douglas stood by the Union. Breckinridge fought as a Confederate general.

In 1912, the Republican Party came to its convention in Chicago divided between incumbent William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, eager to reclaim his old job. TR had mustered great momentum, beating Taft in nine of 12 primaries.But Taft had more delegates, picked at state conventions or by party bosses. Taft forces wrapped the rostrum in barbed wire camouflaged with bunting, lest Roosevelt supporters storm the stage. Taft won on the first ballot; Roosevelt bolted to form a new Progressive Party. Their split elected Woodrow Wilson.

Technology ended such drama. As pundit Michael Barone explains, airliners and long-distance direct dialing let party bosses cement deals ahead of time. It is no accident that the last presidential candidate selected after more than one ballot was Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Primaries and caucuses became universal after 1972, tying up the lion’s share of delegates no matter what party bigwigs might say. Conventions have become venues for hoopla, speeches, spin, and occasionally mayhem. As a maker of nominees, the convention is a ceremony, a spectacle—and a splendid relic. ✯

This story was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.

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