Conventions an Important Part of Nation’s History
By Congressman Michael Turner
This summer, delegates representing the two of the world’s oldest political parties will meet in their respective cities to formally nominate their candidates for President and Vice President of the United States. On November 4, 2008, one of these candidates—Senator Barack Obama of Illinois or Senator John McCain of Arizona—will be elected as our nation’s 44th President.
Denver, Colorado will host the Democratic National Convention during the week of August 25-28, 2008. The following week, the Republican National Convention will convene for four days in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The city of Denver last hosted a major party convention 100 years ago, in 1908, when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for the third time. Bryan, who was highly regarded as a gifted speaker, had twice lost the Presidency to Ohio’s William McKinley. He went on to lose the 1908 presidential election to another Ohio native, William Howard Taft. Minneapolis last hosted a major party convention in 1892, when the Republicans re-nominated President Benjamin Harrison (who was born in North Bend, Ohio). Harrison lost his bid for reelection to former President Grover Cleveland, the man he had defeated four years earlier.
The use of nominating conventions to select presidential nominees evolved in the early nineteenth century out of a desire to reform the political process to allow greater popular participation. The first nominating convention by a major political party was held in Baltimore in 1832 by the Democrats, which chose President Andrew Jackson for a second term and nominated his choice for vice president, Martin Van Buren. The Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party, met in Chicago in 1860 and nominated and elected its first President, Abraham Lincoln. Chicago has hosted 25 major party conventions, more than any other city. The city of Chicago has been host to 14 Republican and 11 Democratic conventions—including the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, which is remembered for the turmoil that occurred both inside and outside the convention hall.
In the past, national conventions were often noisy, spirited events, featuring contentious battles over the presidential nomination and the party platform. It was not uncommon for the convention to begin without a clear favorite, with multiple names placed in nomination, and with no candidate owning enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot. Occasionally, a “dark horse” candidate—an unexpected, less-well-known contender—would emerge as a compromise choice to break the deadlock.
At this year’s conventions, there will be no dark horse candidates, no smoke-filled rooms, and no endless roll call votes. Both parties have adopted rules requiring only a simple majority vote to win the nomination. A series of changes introduced over the past half-century have opened the presidential nomination process to give rank-and-file voters a greater opportunity to participate in the delegate selection process and a role in determining the nominee. Senators Obama and McCain will arrive at their respective conventions having secured the votes needed to win the nomination after competing early this year in the various state primaries and caucuses. Although lacking in suspense, our national political conventions remain an important part of the electoral process and will help voters decide who should be the next President of the United States.