California Forum

How conventional are political conventions?

Republicans will open their national convention in Cleveland for their 41st attempt to win the White House, which they’ve accomplished 23 times starting with Abraham Lincoln.
Republicans will open their national convention in Cleveland for their 41st attempt to win the White House, which they’ve accomplished 23 times starting with Abraham Lincoln. The Associated Press

America’s Founding Fathers had a profound suspicion of established parties as political plagues that would become self-serving groupings of elitists running the country for themselves, not the common good. Imagine that.

Still, parties emerged anyway in the early 19th century. And just as countries see the need for flags, parties felt the need for conventions, first at the state level, then nationally.

This week Republicans open their national convention in Cleveland for their 41st attempt to win the White House, which they’ve accomplished 23 times starting with Abraham Lincoln. Next would be Donald Trump.

Thanks to social media and live-streaming, voters will be able to witness every single second of blather. And the same goes for Democrats the following week in Philadelphia where the first ex-first lady is scheduled for nomination.

It’s been two generations since a convention witnessed a contested nomination. While the media-hyped contested convention idea faded for lack of a viable alternative, the gathering will be closely watched for several things: How show-bizy does the reality TV celebrity go with the political show? Can he add at least some gravitas to his often outlandish caricature?

A modest jump in Donald Trump’s polling before the session will feed optimism. Will the appearance of Ted Cruz help harmony in the hall – as well as the senator’s 2020 standing – or underline the obvious absence of so many GOP luminaries like Mitt Romney, all the Bushes, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and others? How will Washington GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan walk a fine line between professed loyalty to the party’s chosen nominee and their own reputation and future?

Conventions have morphed from closeted gaggles of legislators picking a candidate to the grandiose four-day televised productions of contemporary times designed to sell a personality and party.

Conventions are also pep rallies, still, where thousands of party loyalists gather to, well, party. They pump millions into host-city economies and enthusiasm into activists’ veins for the long fall campaign, half of which are doomed to failure.

Modern conventions can also become media stages for prolonged protests. Think 1968 when Chicago police horses pushed anti-war demonstrators through downtown show windows, tear gas fumes stung the eyes, and the Democratic convention devolved into internal spats closely chronicled on national TV. Still, nominee Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t run in a single primary, almost pulled it off against Richard Nixon that fall.

Four years earlier Republicans fought each other in San Francisco as conservatives got their man Barry Goldwater nominated over the efforts of moderates like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The New Yorker had been disqualified that spring because – gasp – he’d been divorced and remarried.

It didn’t matter. Goldwater got crushed by incumbent Lyndon Johnson in November by 439 electoral votes, 15 million popular votes and 44 states to six.

The 1924 Democratic convention in New York holds the record for duration – 15 days and 103 ballots, worse than a marathon of “The View.” John Davis “won” that affair, only to lose badly to Calvin Coolidge, the Republican who was nominated that year in – Oh, look! – Cleveland.

National party conventions didn’t really get going until 1831 when the first third-party Anti-Masonics assembled 96 delegates in Baltimore to choose William Wirt, actually a former Mason. Who said political parties oppose hypocrisy?

Until then, presidential candidates had been chosen by a party’s congressional caucus.

Democrats didn’t really need a convention in 1832; Andrew Jackson was running again and only needed a VP partner, Martin Van Buren. They met in Baltimore anyway, which was close to Washington, and set the lasting format of quadrennial sessions.

In 1856 Democrats moved to Cincinnati, establishing the tradition of meeting in a different city each leap year. Chicago has hosted the most conventions, 25. Philadelphia becomes second this month with its 10th.

Republicans also liked centrally located Chicago. They’ve met in Cleveland in 1924 (win with Calvin Coolidge), 1936 (loss with Alf Landon) and this year (TBD with TBD).

But national conventions don’t guarantee unity. In 1860, Democrats assembled in Charleston, S.C. They couldn’t agree on anything, especially slavery, presaging a worse division on the historical horizon.

After a six-week adjournment, they re-gathered in Baltimore only to break into two parties for the first and only time in American history.

Northern Democrats ran Stephen Douglas. Southern Democrats ran John Breckinridge. In Chicago, the 6-year-old GOP put forth a country lawyer named Lincoln.

Appropriately enough, months later the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, back in Charleston.

The longevity of American political parties is due in part to their flexibility and resilience. Republicans endured a 20-year White House drought from 1933 to 1953. Only four years after the 1964 Goldwater annihilation, the GOP bounced back to win.

Only once since World War II, however, have Americans awarded the same party White House control for three consecutive terms – two with Ronald Reagan and one with George H.W. Bush.

National conventions have also driven political reforms. In 1968, about 60 percent of Democratic delegates were simply picked by party officials. New rules forced diversity, setting primaries and caucuses as major forces.

That produced George McGovern as the 1972 nominee. He won one state – Massachusetts. Nixon took 49. In 1976 another party outsider came along named Jimmy Carter, the Georgia governor. He won the nomination and election over Gerald Ford, but fell into an unpopular presidency and economic recession with high unemployment.

For 1980, the Democratic Party reformed its reforms, adding a large bundle of elected officials and party establishment figures as rebel-suppressing convention delegates.

These were called – wait for it – superdelegates. Sound familiar?

Fast-forward to 2016. Those unelected superdelegates guaranteed Clinton this summer’s nomination.

And those superdelegates simultaneously guaranteed the bitter defeat of 74-year-old Bernie Sanders, an upstart Democrat-come-lately whose supporters will be left outside the Wells Fargo Center in the presumably peaceful streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

Andrew Malcolm is a veteran foreign and national correspondent who began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at