George Washington did not have a naming convention. As commander of the colonial forces of the American Revolution, he was an easy candidate to select from the eligible pool of any white male 35 and over, and he won his first two elections with no real competition. After that, there was no clear way to reduce the pool, so political parties developed their own methods of selecting candidates.
Parties began to organize conventions at the beginning of the 19th century and presidential primaries at the beginning of the 20th century. The convention remained the primary means of selecting candidates until 1972, when new rules gave primaries more power to determine the candidate. Since then, conventions have become a way to celebrate a pre-determined candidate, rather than a way to pick one.
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Replacement of the caucus by the Convention
After Washington said it would not run for a third term, members of Congress began to choose their parties’ candidate from private caucuses. Critics ridiculed the system as a “King Caucus,” and in September 1831, the Anti-Masonic Party held the first national presidential nomination convention as an alternative to the caucus. Later that year, the National Republican Party (a party different from the modern Republican Party) held its own convention.
The major change came in 1832, when incumbent President Andrew Jackson decided that his party, the Democratic Party, should also hold a convention. Although Jackson has attempted to present this as a way to empower voters, historian Jill Lepore suggests in The New Yorker that it was in fact an attempt to replace Vice President John C. Calhoun with Martin Van Buren on the ticket. (Jackson succeeded and was re-elected.)
Since then, all major parties except the Whigs in 1836 have held a national convention to nominate their presidential candidate. Yet the naming conventions in the 19th century were very different from the versions Americans watch on television today. At the time, the winning candidate did not give an acceptance speech or even necessarily attend the convention – an unofficial practice that ended with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
“For most of the 19th century, the campaign was seen as pretty crass,” says Stan M. Haynes, a Baltimore lawyer and author of two books on the history of naming conventions in the United States.
“Candidates would write letters and do things behind the scenes, but doing anything publicly to show you were a presidential candidate was considered a bit clingy,” he continues. “The party should come to you, you shouldn’t come to the party.”
One of the other big differences between modern conventions and those of the 19th century is that there were no presidential primary elections. The convention was when the candidates were selected. As with the caucus before it, party members came to view this as an undemocratic system in need of reform.
A difficult start for the presidential primaries
Politicians at the turn of the 20th century advocated for the primaries, saying they would make the nomination process more democratic, even if that wasn’t always the main reason politicians supported them. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt – who had previously opposed the primaries – publicly backed them when he realized this might be the only way to wrest the Republican Party nomination from the incumbent president (and to its former vice-president) William Howard Taft.
Only 13 of 48 states held Republican primaries in the 1912 election, so although Roosevelt won most of the races, he did not get enough delegates to win the nomination. He responded by breaking with the Republicans and launching the Progressive Party or “Bull Moose Party” so he could run for President on his ticket. The process for nominating the new party, however, was deeply undemocratic: The Progressive convention refused to sit black delegates to its convention, including those who had supported Roosevelt at the Republican convention.
The Convention as a testing ground for candidates
Even as more states began hosting primary races over the next few decades, the convention remained the primary means of selecting a presidential candidate. Adlai Stevenson did not participate in any of the Democratic presidential primaries of 1952, but still won the convention nomination that year. His Republican opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, was not a clear winner in the Republican primaries, but convention chose him because he led the opinion polls.
“The primaries did not have the effect of electing enough delegates to make the decision,” says Geoffrey Cowan, professor of communications and journalism at USC Annenberg School and author of May the people rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the birth of the presidential primary.
“Instead, they were testing people’s popularity,” he continues. The primaries played an important role in the selection of John F. Kennedy as the 1960 Democratic presidential candidate. “It was believed that a Catholic could not win the presidency, and when he won the state of West Virginia … It showed he could win. ”
Between the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, the balance of power between the convention and the primaries changed dramatically, giving the primaries much more power in choosing candidates.
1968 National Democratic Convention protests lead to change
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is one of the most important party conventions in American history. Outside, police and military attacked and arrested hundreds of anti-war protesters (it would become the “riot” at the center of the Chicago Eight trial). Inside, party leaders ignored the primary results in favor of anti-war candidates like Eugene McCarthy and instead appointed Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of the Vietnam War who had failed to run for office. primary.
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Cowan, then a law student who had worked for McCarthy’s campaign, organized the Commission on Democratic Selection of Presidential Candidates to determine whether the party should change its rules. This led the Democratic Party to adopt new rules giving more power to the primary elections in the selection of a presidential candidate. The Republican Party followed suit by rewriting its rules in the same way.
Although both parties have made changes (such as “superdelegates”) to their rules since then, the fundamental shift to primaries as the most important means of selecting a candidate has remained.
Subsequent attempts to challenge the main winners at conventions have failed. In 1976, future President Ronald Reagan failed to win the Republican nomination over Senior Leader Gerald Ford. In the upcoming presidential election, Ted Kennedy – who was convicted of leaving the scene of the crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne – also failed to wrest the nomination from Jimmy Carter, the clear winner of the primary.
Since those attempts, Democratic and Republican conventions have simply provided a venue to celebrate and promote a chosen candidate, rather than pick one.
It’s a very different type of process than it was in 1880, when James A. Garfield gave a convention speech endorsing John Sherman as the Republican candidate. Delegates loved his speech so much that they named Garfield, not the person he was supporting, and Garfield became president – an unthinkable outcome in the 21st century.