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

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
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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.

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.

And just four years ago, Democrats barely sidestepped a mile-high donnybrook in Denver, with floor fights threatened over the seating of Michigan and Florida delegates and with Senator Hillary Clinton (who had narrowly won the primary “popular” vote) not tossing in the towel (or was it the pants suit?) until early June.

Yes, you might think that a brokered convention is a convention that has gone on far too long.

You might think that the contemporary Republican race has proceeded far too long already.

If you indeed harbor that opinion, you just might be on to something.

Consider this. To nominate the aged Ohioan William Henry Harrison for his 1840 match-up versus incumbent Martin Van Buren, Whigs conducted their national convention and delivered their nominations in December 1839.

And to nominate the bewhiskered Van Buren for his successful 1836 race, Democrats convened in Baltimore in May 1835.

It’s amazing what you can do without an Ames straw poll.

Presidential election scholar David Pietrusza is the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon, and 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America.