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Political Conventions: Once Cutting Edge, Now Almost Useless

As Republicans from all over the country descend on New York City, most voters are aware that the conventions are simply made-for-TV pageantry. Presidential candidates are no longer made at this quadrennial relic of the past, which has been surpassed by the more democratic institutions of the primary and caucus. However, when the conventions were first started, they were actually a distinct improvement on the previous method of selecting our nation’s top leader. At their adoption, conventions were a blow for democracy.

In the first decades of the 19th century, candidates were selected by the Congressional caucus — a meeting of Congressional leaders held every four years to put forward nominees. The caucus system, combined with the disintegration of the old Federalist Party, eventually led to the nearly unanimous re-election of James Monroe in 1820, the last president elected under “King Caucus.”

In 1824, this system collapsed. Four of the most impressive candidates ever to seek the office vied for the presidency: former Gen. and Sen. Andrew Jackson; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams; Treasury Secretary Henry Crawford, King Caucus candidate; and Speaker Henry Clay, the architect of the nation-saving Missouri Compromise.

After a tight battle in which no candidate received a majority of votes in the Electoral College, the election was thrown to the House, and with the help of Clay, Adams prevailed. The enraged Jackson, who received a plurality of Electoral College votes, got his revenge in a successful presidential bid in 1828. From this conflagration was born two parties: the more populist Jackson Democrats and the more diffuse, opposition Whigs.

By the election of 1832, the United States had changed. Every state but South Carolina would now allow voters, as opposed to the state legislature, to select their choice for president — or at least for their choice for the presidential electors. Candidates tried to demonstrate their popular appeal by having a gathering of leaders from across the states nominate them. It began a year before, with the convention of the short-lived Anti-Masons.

The Democrats, led by the “Little Magician” Martin Van Buren, adopted this innovation, as did Clay’s National Republican (soon to be Whig) Party. Except for the Whigs in 1836, every party has used the convention process since then.

Throughout the 19th century, the conventions were the major parties’ only method of choosing presidential nominees. While voters did have a greater role in this process than under King Caucus, party bosses quickly assumed most of the decision-making power.

The conventions began their slow descent in the 20th century. The Progressive Era gave a push to more democratic systems. On the state and local level, this resulted in the ballot initiative, the referendum and the recall; on the national level, it bequeathed the direct election of Senators. And some state party organizations, beginning with Florida in 1904, instituted primaries as the means to nominate the party’s presidential candidates.

The primaries were by no means all-encompassing. Most states still selected delegates through state conventions, which could be controlled by powerful bosses. But the primaries did have an impact. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran and crushed sitting President William Howard Taft in a succession of primary battles. Roosevelt’s victories were not enough to gain him the Republican nomination; Taft’s control over the party apparatus ensured his spot on the ballot, though ultimately not his re-election. Still, this election highlighted the potential power of the primaries.

For most of the next half-century, the conventions maintained their previous role, though first radio and then television turned them into more sedate affairs. Some candidates began entering primaries to prove their electoral strength. In 1960, this strategy finally began paying dividends.

That year, John F. Kennedy faced several problems on the road to the convention. The most pressing was the belief that a Catholic candidate could never win over a Protestant majority. Kennedy used the primaries, specifically in West Virginia, a 95 percent Protestant state, to show his cross-religious appeal. It worked: Kennedy handily defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a victory that many now cite as enabling Kennedy’s later successes.

The primaries again played a similar role in 1968, when little-regarded Sen. Eugene McCarthy took 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, helping knock President Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Subsequently, McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy waged a series of primary battles across the country, culminating in Kennedy’s victory in California on the night he was assassinated. Since the primaries had not yet come into their own, Vice President Humphrey, who had competed in no primary states, took the nomination.

However, on the second night of the convention, the party voted to set up a commission to give Democratic voters more of a role in nominating the president. The reforms included expanding the primary process. By 1972, the primaries finally took over, as the clear choice of Democratic primary voters, Sen. George McGovern, captured the nomination. Since 1972, every nominee has competed successfully in the primary process and won a first-ballot nomination.

The impact on both parties’ conventions has been immense. Each subsequent convention has become less important than the last and has received less interest from the public and the media. Where once conventions were a forum to choose leaders and hash out party policy, they are now used primarily to provide candidates with a temporary bump in the polls, one that dissipates in a few days.

There is a major beneficiary of the downfall of the conventions, however: the voters. Unlike in the past, when the nominees were often products of compromises and hidden deals, the voters themselves are now able to decide who will represent them. While people invariably complain about the quality of candidates, conventioneers were not much better, as the presidencies of Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding attest.

All told, the march of democracy has enabled the voters, and the primary system, to throw aside the crutch of the convention and cast ballots for themselves.

Joshua Spivak is an attorney, writer and media consultant with the firm Ripp Media.

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