UP NOLAN CREEK: Changing Conventions
Thursday, 06 September 2012 by Wayne Carpenter
Now that the heat is loosening its grip on Texas, and the 'dog days' of August are giving way to the cooler days of September, another summer has zipped by in a flash. This summer's heat wasn't nearly as unbearable as last year, at least around here, but it was still plenty hot. Seems like just yesterday kids and teachers were celebrating school being out, and we were looking forward to enjoying the London Olympics. Texas Ranger fans have been enjoying another fine summer season and we diehards, who still support the Astros, are looking forward to next year.
With summer drawing to a close, those of us not going back to school find ourselves smack dab in the middle of presidential election year frenzy whether we want to be or not. Despite distractions such as football kickoffs and the opening of dove season, it will be hard to escape political convention hoopla for the next two weeks, and election day is still two long months away. I am writing this on Aug. 27, the anniversary of the birth of Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who enjoyed a good political tussle as much as any American politician. I can't help but wonder what LBJ would think about our current state of affairs. Someone asked me recently the purpose of a political convention. A good question; certainly not what it once was. Back in the 1830's political conventions originated for party leaders to gather and select the man (women couldn't even vote) they thought best represented their party and who had the greatest chance of being elected. For decades the conventions were extremely important. Those were the days of back-room meetings and the proverbial smoke-filled rooms with wheeler-dealers wielding their political clout behind the scenes. There are several good examples of what a conventions once was. 1856, for example, saw a new party, the Republican Party, select John C. Fremont as their candidate. Some of Freemont's opponents played the "birther" card, claiming Freemont was actually born in Canada, and others were angry because he was a Roman Catholic. Some things never change. Freemont then lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. Four years later the country was so divided over slavery there were actually four separate conventions, each nominating its own presidential candidate. The Republican convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell, and the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Southern Democrats selected John C. Breckinridge and the northerners selected Stephen Douglas. Lincoln narrowly won the election, and the south seceded from the Union.
In 1924, the Democratic Party was so splintered that they nominated 15 candidates during their convention. One candidate was supported by the Ku Klux Klan, which was a powerful force in the 1920's. Race, religion, and prohibition were all angrily debated on the floor of the convention. Fistfights broke out among some convention delegates, and it took 16 days and 103 ballots before the delegates finally selected John W. Davis as a compromise candidate. After all the struggles and negative press the convention generated, Calvin Coolidge easily defeated Davis in the election.
The days of knock-down, drag-out floor fights for the nomination have, for the most part, been replaced by the presidential primary system in which delegates are selected by popular vote in each state rather than in party caucus or by back-room power brokering. Today a candidate typically garners enough delegates in the primaries to assure the nomination on the first ballot of the convention. The last time a nomination required multiple ballots was the Democratic convention of 1952 when it took three ballots before Adlai Stevenson gained the honor of running against Dwight D. Eisenhower before losing to him in the November election.
This year each party already knows who its presidential candidate will be, and the conventions will be lavish spectacles for television viewers and rather than forums for candidate selection. Party activists will have great fun adopting platforms almost no one will read, and do their best to generate enthusiasm for the candidate they support. We'll hear dozens of speeches, and see lots of balloons and hoopla, but this year's conventions will be nothing like the bare knuckle brawls which often selected presidential candidates in our nation's past.