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.”

Splintered Democrats required 49 ballots to nominate former New Hampshire Governor Franklin Pierce in 1852. But they had nothing on their competition. Previously, every other Whig candidate had triumphed on the initial roll call. In 1852, however, fractured Whigs needed 53 ballots to nominate Mexican War hero General Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott over incumbent accidental-president Millard Fillmore.

The high — or low — mark? Democrats sweated and argued through an incredible 103 ballots in 1924 as they failed to decide between New York Governor Alfred E. Smith (a Catholic), the aforementioned William Gibbs McAdoo (now the Klan-backed candidate) and Oscar W. Underwood (now an anti-KKK U.S. senator). Exhausted (and nearly broke) delegates eventually settled on the relatively unknown conservative Wall Street lawyer and former West Virginia congressman John W. Davis. Davis had received exactly 21 (yes, that’s right, 21) votes in the 1924 primary season and fared barely better than that in November’s general election, garnering a putrid 28.8% of the popular vote.

But at least 1924’s Democrats settled on someone. In April 1860 Democrats gathered at Charleston, South Carolina and trudged through 57 ballots before … before … simply giving up and going home. That June two groups of Democrats re-convened in Baltimore. One assemblage required two ballots to nominate Illinois’ diminutive Stephen A. Douglas. Pro-slavery Democrats later nominated James Buchanan’s vice president, the youthful Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge. Meanwhile, Republicans needed three rounds to choose a still-beardless Abraham Lincoln over his more-experienced rivals: New York United States Senator William H. Seward (the presumed front-runner), Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase and Pennsylvania United States Senator Simon Cameron.

Also on the Republican side, it took 10 ballots to deliver 1920’s nomination to Ohio United States Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding and 36 for his fellow Ohioan, James Abram Garfield, to triumph in 1880.

Yes, the practice of brokered conventions seemingly ended with Adlai Stevenson’s July 1952 nomination, but on several subsequent occasions strong possibilities have indeed existed for at least a round two — and for plot twist upon plot twist.

That is certainly what Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson banked on in 1960. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey famously battled it out in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries, but the wily LBJ bided his time until just before the party’s Los Angeles convention opened to declare his candidacy. As it was, JFK’s nomination proved to be an exceedingly closely run matter. Kennedy didn’t secure a majority of the delegates until Wyoming’s 15 delegates voted.

Nineteen-seventy-six saw challenger Ronald Reagan and incumbent Gerald R. Ford competing furiously for every vote. Ford barely squeaked by the former California governor, 1,180 votes to 1,069 (with 10 delegates abstaining), amid floor fights over rules and rumors of major arm-twisting of key delegates.

On the Democratic side, former Vice President Walter Mondale barely escaped a first-ballot logjam in 1984. In 1968, had Sirhan B. Sirhan not assassinated late-entrant Robert F. Kennedy following RFK’s victory in the crucial California primary, a brokered confab might easily have resulted.