Politics & Policy

Lessons from the Ultimate Contested Convention

On the floor in New York City, June 1924 (Getty Images)
Nearly a century ago, a brokered convention and a divided party equaled 103 ballots.

Donald Trump and his supporters are crying foul at the very mention of a contested convention. Despite their contention that the majority-vote requirement is “totally arbitrary,” it seems pretty obvious that, in a democratic republic like America, a majority vote is the norm, and it is indisputable that both parties have always required at least a majority vote to secure their nomination. While it has been several decades since we last saw a contested convention, it is definitely not uncharted waters. The parties have not only survived contested conventions, but these contested conventions have often nominated good candidates. However, there are some serious warning signs, and the GOP, as it comes face to face with the probability of a contested 2016 convention, should heed them.

Many historic precedents of contested conventions can be cited, but the most contested of all was without question the Democratic Convention of 1924. By the time convention delegates convened in New York City on June 24, there was ample evidence that the Democratic party was deeply divided. As the leading quipster of that day, Finley Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”), wrote, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itself.” Former president Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law (and Treasury secretary), William Gibbs McAdoo, and the governor of New York, Al Smith, had squared off over the main issues, with a generous portion of personal animosity thrown in. Each held enough delegate votes to prevent the other from being nominated. At that time the Democratic party labored under the requirement of a two-thirds nominating majority, and it was clear neither Smith nor McAdoo could achieve it.

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To make matters worse, the hot-button social issues of the day were enmeshed in religion and evoked a white-hot fervor on all sides. Prohibition, immigration, and the KKK were the issues, and there appeared to be no room for compromise. The convention opened with an explosive floor fight over the party’s platform. Record-setting temperatures outside produced what reporters called “furnace-like air in the draped hall that kept fans and straw hats waving vigorously.” By the third day the Washington Post was reporting “Delegates in Fist Fights on Floor Over Klan.”

Al Smith and his anti-prohibition forces had the whiskey flowing, while McAdoo and his pro-prohibition delegates piously called for divine retribution against the “big city wets.” Former secretary of the Navy and veteran Democratic warhorse Josephus Daniels wrote from the convention to the folks back home in North Carolina: “This convention is chock full of religion. It eats religion, dreams it, smokes it.” He warned the Democrats not to forsake “the denunciation of Republicans for religious warfare among themselves.”

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After endless wrangling and grandstanding, the convention staggered to the adoption of a platform that was noteworthy only for its failure to confront the big issues. Nothing of substance was said about prohibition, immigration, the League of Nations, or the KKK. It did make a gracious acknowledgement of President Harding’s recent death; but even that was contested. The original wording stated, “Our Party stands uncovered at the bier of Warren G. Harding. . . . ” But the prohibitionists insisted on substituting “grave” for “bier,” lest some of their supporters back home take offense.

#share#Then the primary task of nominating a candidate — and the real fireworks — began. Seizing his home-court advantage, Al Smith packed Madison Square Garden with his supporters and practically blew off the roof with what newspapers called “terrifying pandemonium.” Other nominations, of McAdoo and a string of favorite-son candidates, followed until after 4:00 a.m. The following day, June 30, the balloting began. The first-roll call vote had McAdoo with 431, Smith with 241, and the rest far behind. The total number of delegates was 1,089, meaning that 726 were needed to secure the nomination. By July 1, 15 ballots had been cast with hardly any movement among the candidates: McAdoo 479, Smith 305. By July 3, the convention sailed past old Democratic record of 57 ballots, set in the calamitous year of 1860, and on the 70th ballot it was still McAdoo 415, Smith 323.

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The acrimony was pervasive. In historian David Burner’s words, “The deadlock that developed might as well have between the Pope and the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, so solidly did the Catholic delegates support Smith and the Klan delegates support McAdoo.” Some reporters claimed that even the prohibition forces were drunk by this point.

Finally, on July 9, Smith and McAdoo released their delegates (the latter very grudgingly), and a compromise candidate, John W. Davis of West Virginia, won the nomination on the 103rd ballot. The longest and bitterest convention in American history had mercifully come to an end.

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What can be learned from all this? Three points:

First, America does indeed have a history of contested conventions. While we haven’t had one in a while, it’s nothing new — and the Republic and the parties have survived them.

Second, it’s possible in the midst of bitter acrimony and division for a party to nominate a good candidate. The leading columnist of that day, Walter Lippmann, wrote about the 1924 Democratic convention that “in this case men who had looked into a witches’ cauldron of hatred and disunion yielded to a half-conscious judgment which was far more reliable than their common sense. For they turned to the one candidate who embodied those very qualities for lack of which the party had almost destroyed itself.”

#related#Third, although John W. Davis was as fine a man as has ever been nominated by either party, his general-election prospects were ruined by the convention. As Franklin Roosevelt wrote to a friend in the fall of 1924, “We defeated ourselves in New York in June.” With party divisions running so deep and with severe personal animosities between McAdoo and Smith, it was impossible for the Democrats to rally around Davis and win the election.

This final point should be sobering to the GOP as it faces a contested convention in 2016. Contested conventions have not usually been as bitter as the 1924 Democratic convention. But if the 2016 Republican convention is allowed to degenerate into internecine warfare, the Democratic party will be the big winner.

Garland S. Tucker IIIGarland S. Tucker III is the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: The 1924 Election and Conservative Heroes.


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