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.
It’s fascinating that, though Bernie Sanders has won one primary election and only narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in two others, Democratic party rules give him next-to-no chance of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. These circumstances justified the headline of Monday’s lead article in the New York Times: ‘Delegate Count Leaving Sanders With Steep Climb.’ Continue reading →
This photograph provides a measure of how much our style of choosing presidents has changed. In 1904, when this picture was taken, there was no doubt whatsoever of the power of political parties to select their presidential nominees. In the century since, both parties have lost that control.
Admittedly, the star of this picture, Theodore Roosevelt (in the white vest), was immensely popular, and the incumbent. His rise had been dependent, however, on his skill in gaining support of the major powers in his party–the political bosses who controlled large blocks of delegates, and the senior officeholders whom the bosses supported. A presidential hopeful had to take into account established figures and personally win them over. The months leading up to a convention were a period of intense jockeying, as hopefuls and their friends made the rounds, trying to gain traction within the organization. No way could a candidate hope to become president without the party establishment, because the power to select a nominee really lay, not with voters, but with their delegates.
Ultimately, delegates to the conventions chose the nominee. They could change their votes during the balloting if they pleased, and such changes were often necessary. This process forced the people who were most invested in a political party to come to an agreement about competing nominees and decide which of them best served the party’s interests. In the process of rejecting candidates, the party also closed off undesirable ideological directions it might have taken. (Both the Democratic and Republican parties curtailed the independence of delegates after the tumult of the 1960s, gutting the conventions of their essential purpose and drama.)
Young Roosevelt understood that his individual destiny was interdependent with that of the GOP. Early on, he labored to prove his loyalty to the Republican Party, despite his Progressive leanings and reputation for being an impetuous renegade. He recognized that, whatever his personal talents (which proved to be considerable), he needed the vast organizing structure of the party to propel him upward. After angling for years to get the party where he wanted it, the party finally acquiesced.
The ritualistic mating game they had played was epitomized in the nominating committee’s formal call on Roosevelt after the convention. They visited Roosevelt at his home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill, where he personally received them and demurely accepted their invitation to be the party nominee. The character of the event was not unlike an at-home wedding.
The accommodation that he and his fellow Republicans achieved gave Roosevelt the personal glory he craved, while benefiting the party, which, by organizing itself around Roosevelt, soared to new levels of popularity. In the general election that pitted him against Democrat Alton B. Parker, Roosevelt won every state in the North and the West, including Missouri, which hadn’t gone Republican since the 1860s. His margin of victory was 2.5 million popular votes, the largest in American history.
Roosevelt forgot what he knew about interdependence later in life. Having declared that he would never again run for the presidency, he yielded his place to William B. Taft, who retained the White House for the Republicans in 1908. In 1912, Roosevelt made a disastrous decision to run against his party, splitting it and effectively giving the presidency to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. It was that party’s first presidential victory since before the Civil War. Roosevelt’s go-it-alone mentality and determination to defy the stolid power of the parties betokened the ill-conceived and divisive presidential bids so prevalent now.