by Stephen Yellin
In the modern era of American politics, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions have turned into a 4-day pep rally and narrative booster for the presumptive nominee. In the age of 24/7 news coverage (both on TV and online), this block of time has to be used to present the nation with a compelling argument for electing the Presidential nominee, showing a unified party committed to a man who will lead America towards a better, brighter era. While in practice this does not always happen - see Chris Christie's keynote speech and the suppression of Ron Paul delegates that occurred yesterday - the overall intent is clear.
It didn't use to be this way, mind you. For most of the history of National Conventions, the choice of the nominees for President and Vice-President was not a sure thing going into the balloting itself, let alone Day 1. Even when the nominee was a shoe-in (an incumbent, for example), the Convention could see passions flare and real, heartfelt debate occur over what the Party ought to stand for in making its case to the American people.
In several instances, the Convention not only determined who would take the Oath of Office on January 20th, but changed the course of American history in the process. This article (written in 3 parts) will take a look at some of the most important ones, starting with the Democratic side. Jump past the orange emblem to read on.
Note: quotes and facts will be directly cited, but the narratives are in my own words unless noted otherwise.
Martin Van Buren and the Law of Unintended Consequences
The first official national convention occurred in May 1832 , as the recently reorganized Democratic Party (having lost its monopoly on national parties in supporting Andrew Jackson's Presidency) met in Baltimore, Maryland. Orchestrated by Martin Van Buren, who would replace John C. Calhoun as Jackson's Vice-Presidential nominee that year, the Democratic National Convention established the rules for choosing their nominees going forward (the Democratic Party platform would emerge in 1840, and has been used by Whigs/Republicans since 1844).
Why does this matter? In an effort to show a unified front for Van Buren joining Jackson on the ticket, the canny "Man from Kinderhook" had the Baltimore convention adopt a "two-thirds rule" that would stay on the books until 1936. In order for a candidate to win the nomination, he had to win 2/3rds of the Convention delegates - a task that would be increasingly difficult with the coming of the Civil War and the divisions between Northern and Southern Democrats thereafter. What began as a propaganda piece to show 100% Democratic unity would cause the dreams of many a Democratic candidate to be crushed over the next century.
While Jackson and Van Buren were shoe-ins as incumbents, the Democrats were trying to regain the White House in 1844. Van Buren, although defeated for reelection in 1840, showed his political organizing skills were as sharp as ever, as he knocked two of his chief competitors out of the race before the convention met: Calhoun and James Buchanan. Just before the convention, however, Van Buren committed a major misstep that probably cost him the nomination: he issued a statement opposing the proposed annexation of Texas, claiming it would cause a war with Mexico. Northern Democrats were pleased, but Southern Democrats were irate, seeing the statement as an implicit attack on the expansion of slavery to new states.
When the convention met, Van Buren's ploy of 1832 came back to haunt him: he won 55% of the delegates on the 1st ballot, but enough Southern delegates went to Lewis Cass and ex-Vice President Richard Johnson to keep the ex-President from prevailing. Van Buren delegates began to desert him for Cass, but the Michigan Democrat couldn't even muster a majority of delegates. When the Van Buren team tried to amend the rules to allow a simple majority to decide the nominee, they were blocked.
Then, on the 8th ballot, something strange happened. Four delegations decided to cast their votes for James K. Polk, the former House Speaker; the problem was that Polk was angling for the Vice-Presidency, not the top spot. Eager to try and find a compromise candidate, delegates ignored that fact and began to rally around a man virtually unknown to the nation at large. Van Buren's floor managers saw the writing on the wall and released their delegates, sparking a stampede that saw Polk nominated unanimously on the 9th ballot.
Polk was the first example of a "dark horse" winning the Presidential nomination; his obscurity helped him defeat the highly polarizing Henry Clay in November, and in the process creating a Presidency that would see America expand its borders to the Pacific Ocean, both by force (the Mexican War) and diplomacy (the 49th Parallel compromise with Great Britain). A nominee tied to one part of the slavery debate (like Van Buren and Cass) would have probably lost to Clay, changing American history in the process.
Bridging a Widening Chasm
Four years later, Cass consolidated enough support to win the nomination. His public opposition to the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso, however, sparked a 3rd party movement of anti-slavery Democrats (and some Whigs). Martin Van Buren, leading the Free Soil Party, drew enough support in New York to throw the election to Zachary Taylor. By 1852, however, the slavery question had deeply divided both parties, with the Whigs already falling apart. By nominating the supposedly pro-Free Soil Winfield Scott over President Millard Fillmore, the Whigs all but ensured a Democratic victory - provided that the Democrats could pick a nominee that didn't alienate half the country in the process.
Once again, a dark horse would emerge, this time after a marathon-like struggle that lasted 49 ballots over 5 days. Once again, Cass and Buchanan were locked in a political death match, with each commanding support from each region; neither could get a majority, however, and North and South began to maneuver for a nominee of their own. In a spectacular flip-flop worthy of Mitt Romney, New York Democrat William Marcy switched from an anti-slavery to pro-slavery position, but even this failed to get him anywhere near the 2/3rds needed.
Just as in 1844, it was Virginia that pointed the way towards a compromise candidate. On the 35th ballot it nominated former New Hampshire United States Senator Franklin Pierce, who hadn't been in public office in a decade. Being a handsome, charming man without a burdensome record made Pierce acceptable to Northerners; his support of the Compromise of 1850 made Pierce acceptable to the South. First Marcy's, then Cass' delegates flocked to Pierce on the 49th ballot, a stampede described by the newly-founded Democratic National Committee: "the cheering was so loud that little was heard...the excitement was electric." Four years later, the Democratic delegates tossed Pierce overboard and nominated Buchanan, as the latter's diplomatic posts had conveniently kept him out of the Kansas-Nebraska debate that further fueled the flames of sectional conflict.
By 1860, it was no longer possible for Democrats to rally behind anybody. 10 days and 57 ballots at the convention in Charleston, South Carolina failed to produce a nominee, as Southerners abstained en masse to block Northerner Stephen Douglas from prevailing. For the first and only time in American history, the convention adjourned without a nominee. A do-over in Baltimore would have had a similar fate if Douglas' delegates hadn't succeeded in changing the rules to exclude abstentions in the 2/3rds count. After 115 ballots over a 2-month span, Douglass prevailed, but not before the South walked out and held their own convention on the same day, choosing Vice-President John Breckenridge as their nominee.
The Democratic split was total, making the election of the newly-formed, anti-slave expansion Republican Party's nominee inevitable (you may have heard of the guy - he had a rough experience at a play one night). It was probably inevitable, for that matter, that the coming of the Civil War would have ended the Party of Jackson's claim to represent Americans in every part of the country. The conventions of 1852 through 1856, without question, accelerated that process by choosing a nominee that was incapable in keeping North and South together.
Barack Obama has beautifully expressed the need for nations and citizens to be "on the right side of history". In choosing obfuscation and obscurity to hold onto power, the Democratic Party ended up on the wrong side of history. It would take another century before they would fully embrace the concept of racial equality, no matter how high the political price.