Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair. The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people. By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country. Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.
This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam. (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.) Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings. (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)
Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’ ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’
The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.
With Donald Trump’s sweep of five more states yesterday, his two remaining opponents in the GOP are looking more and more like also-rans. Trump has not yet sewn up the nomination, but the odds that he will are increasing. His victory in the so-called ‘Acela’ states demonstrated, perhaps more than any win up to now, that he is not a fringe candidate—that he has broad geographic appeal and can secure votes among diverse demographics. Last night, for example, he carried the Philadelphia suburbs, defying those who imagine that Trump’s followers are mainly people of low means and education.
Last night, Trump won more than 53 percent of the Republican vote. Ted Cruz, his nearest rival, polled dismally, placing third in four of the five contests, more damning proof of the Texan’s unpopularity in the moderate eastern regions. In remarks following his victory, Trump deftly portrayed Cruz’s recent procedural maneuvering (e.g. wooing convention delegates) as ethically dubious and irrelevant. While Cruz hopes to win nomination on the convention’s second ballot, Trump expects to win on the first, rendering Senator Cruz’s efforts nugatory.
And, honestly, if Trump continues to moderate his tone, it is difficult to avoid concluding he will be the Republican nominee. Last night’s remarks showed him looking confidently ahead to Indiana and beyond that to the general election, where he will offer Secretary Clinton a formidable challenge.
REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups. A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.
These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus. On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she. His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.
Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally. She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat. She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.
Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties. Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing. Clinton is electable, butSanders is even more electable than she. Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this. They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to. They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.
On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large. The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP. Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail. Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward. Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.
Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.
Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.
Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile. On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party. On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand. Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.
We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really? The parties, we are discovering, are impotent. There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves. If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.
Trump and Sanders are political bounders. Who are their friends on the Hill? How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency? Who would their advisers be?
Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison. Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary. Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party. In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.
And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America. The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties. Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong. It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China. It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans. Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing. Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.
It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside. If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party. Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.
Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes. Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs. In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed. Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity. Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.
This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856. The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls. Boxes for the distribution of tickets. Everybody busy.’ At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box. The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party. Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.
Could Donald Trump become president? The most recent GOP debate left me wondering. Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in. Now, I have my doubts. Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.
Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious. For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing. Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.
Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But what if that isn’t true? What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead? Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible. Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.
In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people. In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity. Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly. As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.
Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror. Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.
Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy. A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense. Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.
So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president? Like it or not, the answer is yes. Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign. Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?
For a transcript of the debate, click here. For a fact-check of the debate, click here.