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The Myth of "Brokered" Conventions

A quick quiz. 

Question 1: Who were the last two presidential nominees lacking a majority at the end of the first roll call at their party conventions?

Correct answer: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Eisenhower's nomination followed immediately when Minnesota, pledged to its former governor Harold Stassen (at that point still a serious political figure), switched its votes. Stevenson, who had declared his candidacy only a few days earlier, did not win until the third ballot. 

Question 2: Who was the last candidate to carry his fight to the convention and come within 117 votes of defeating an incumbent president?

Answer: Ronald Reagan in 1976.

The 1950s and 1970s probably do not seem so long ago to most adults.  Even those born later usually remember conversations with their parents and grandparents. The main exception to this practice seems to be our reigning political pundits, for whom only events since 1980 at the latest count as recent and relevant. This short-term perspective badly distorts our understanding of so-called brokered conventions.

Although the term's origins remain obscure the disreputable connotations are apparent. The Republican convention of 1920 is often cited to underscore the sordid. In February of that year, Senator Warren Harding's campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, predicted that after the convention deadlocked worried party leaders meeting in a "smoke filled room" would choose Harding as a compromise. In June no candidate received a majority on the first four ballots, party leaders did confer into the wee hours, and Harding won both the nomination and the election. A corrupt administration followed. Unfortunately for the legend, several other compromise candidates were also put forward in many smoke filled rooms that night, Harding was not nominated until the tenth ballot, and the instant legend was quickly disputed by skeptical journalists and several of the alleged power brokers. Historians have debunked the "smoked filled room" myth for a half century.

Legends aside, five points should be remembered about contested conventions.

First, as my proposed neutral alternate adjective suggests, nomination by way of a contested convention was a respectable strategy from the 1830s, when conventions became the standard way of nominating candidates, until at least the 1960s. Democratic front runners Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and John Kennedy in 1960 knew that their support might dissipate unless they won quickly. Their chief rivals, Al Smith and Lyndon Johnson respectively, hoped that it would. In both cases effective floor managers kept wavering delegates in line. Kennedy won on the first ballot but not until the alphabetical roll call reached Wyoming; Roosevelt won on the fourth when the Democrats still required a two-thirds majority.

The most important beneficiaries of a contested convention strategy were Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Wilson professed to believe that any candidate who reached a majority should be nominated even if he fell short of the two thirds required by his party. Wilson changed his mind when the front runner, House Speaker Champ Clark, reached a majority. He held out and won on the forty-sixth ballot.

Second, though deals were ubiquitous, often about jobs up to the level of the vice presidency -- Lincoln and Wilson's managers were especially skillful in this respect -- personal friendship and ideological affinity also affected shifts. Stevenson won after the withdrawal of his fellow urbane internationalist New Dealer, Averell Harriman, whom he was more or less supporting a week earlier.

Third, conventions were, are, and probably should be about more than nominations. Senator Richard Russell, the genteel face of racial segregation, accumulated large numbers of delegates at the 1948 and 1952 Democratic conventions in order to demonstrate the power of the white South. Jesse Jackson used the same tactic on behalf of racial equality and a "rainbow coalition" in 1984 and 1988. Whether or not Senator Edward Kennedy actually thought he could shake loose Jimmy Carter's delegates at an "open convention" in 1980, he wanted to make a vivid case for liberalism.

Fourth, even leaving aside Lincoln and Wilson, compromise candidates were never as obscure as the mythology suggests. The first "dark horse" nominee, Democrat James K. Polk in 1844, was Andrew Jackson's protégé and had served as speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee. John W. Davis, chosen by the Democrats  on the one hundred and third ballot in 1924, had been ambassador to Great Britain and ranked as the foremost Supreme Court litigator of the twentieth century. Warren Harding had keynoted a previous Republican convention. Indeed, Harding in retrospect looks like a blessing compared to General Leonard Wood, the front runner he defeated in 1920. As commander of American troops fighting to control the Philippines earlier in the century, Wood had suggested the annihilation of all Filipino Muslims, a group particularly strong in its resistance, and troops under his command massacred unarmed Muslims in 1906. The Harding scandals look benign in comparison.

No one can predict whether or not the Republicans will have a contested convention this year, either because Mitt Romney's more conservative rivals might have a chance in combination to deny him the nomination or because they want to make a vivid ideological statement. But, fifth, we should be wary of commentators who say that such an event will not occur. The same sort of commentators -- indeed, in some cases the same reigning pundits -- doubted in 2000 that a presidential nominee could lose the popular vote but still win the White House.

After all, when had that happened before?

Correct answer: John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1888 -- not to mention the close calls in 1880, 1884, 1916, 1948, 1960, and 1976.