Opinion

If it ain’t fixed, broker it: a brief history of long conventions

Photo of David Pietrusza
David Pietrusza
Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
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      David Pietrusza

      David Pietrusza is the editor of “Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Wit & Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge,” “Coolidge on the Founders: Reflections on the American Revolution & The Founding Fathers,” and the recently released “Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography.”

Increasingly loud and nervous chatter about a possible — perhaps even a likely — brokered 2012 Republican National Convention mandates a gander back at what had previously been surmised to be a political species as extinct as the fabled bull moose: the phenomenon of national conventions that dare to proceed beyond the now-seemingly obligatory rush to first-ballot judgment.

Since 1952′s Democratic draft of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, nary a solitary major party convention has necessitated even as much as a second ballot. The erudite egghead Stevenson registered a third-ballot victory — but even then, just barely, with a mere 50.2% of the vote.

Other relatively recent brokered nominations include that of ill-fated New York GOP Governor Thomas E. Dewey (third ballot in 1948), dark horse Democrat-turned-Republican utilities industry attorney Wendell Willkie (sixth ballot in 1940) and the then-untested New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (fourth ballot in 1932). Missouri United States Senator Harry S. Truman failed to secure his 1944 vice presidential nomination until massive second-round vote-shifting (i.e., arm-twisting).

Two structural factors not only allowed but previously favored such feverish wheeling-and-dealing.

Today, nearly every state anoints its delegates via the primary route. Previously, most delegates were chosen at state conventions. Many of those smoke-filled party poobahs supported favorite-son candidates. Nearly all such faux presidential hopefuls, however, fell by the wayside following a roll call or two, but their former “supporters” proved crucial in the subsequent deal-making that eventually birthed brokered nominations.

An additional factor favoring deadlocked confabs was a long-standing Democratic Party rule requiring nominees to secure two-thirds of the vote before declaring victory. A simple majority would not do, and until Democrats abolished their two-thirds rule in 1936, enormous possibilities for mischief flourished.

For example: Ohio Governor James M. Cox slogged through 44 excruciating ballots to upset former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo (Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law) and “Red Scare” Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the party’s 1920 San Francisco conclave.

Woodrow Wilson himself needed 46 ballots in Baltimore in 1912 to vanquish Speaker of the House Champ Clark (who had consistently led in early tallies), Ohio Governor Judson Harmon and House Majority Leader Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. The process proved so discouraging to the testy Wilson that he strongly considered having a concession speech read to the equally weary delegates.