By Garland S. Tucker, III
First, we heard Donald Trump crying foul at the very mention of a “contested” convention and warning ominously of “trouble” from his supporters if they are denied a first ballot victory. Now, we have Bernie Sanders alleging a “rigged” outcome and predicting a “messy” convention if super delegates deny his claim to the nomination. While it has been several decades since we have seen 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 both parties, as they come face to face with the possibility of a “messy” 2016 convention, should heed them.
Many historic precedents of contentious conventions can be cited, but the granddaddy of them all was, without question, the 1924 Democratic National Convention. By the time convention delegates convened in New York City on June 24, 1924, 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 Wilson’s son-in-law, Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, and the Governor of New York, Al Smith, had squared off over the main issues – and 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 make it.
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 platform. Record setting temperatures outside, produced what reporters called “furnace-like air in the draped hall that kept fans and straw hats waiving 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.”
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 William Jennings Bryan and the prohibitionists insisted on substituting “grave” for “bier,” lest some of their supporters back home take offense!
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 4am in the morning. The following day the balloting began. The first roll call vote had McAdoo with 431, Smith with 241, and the rest far behind. By July 1, fifteen ballots had been cast with hardly any movement among the candidates: McAdoo 479, Smith 305. By July 3, the convention sailed past old Democratic Party record of fifty-seven ballots set in 1860, and the seventieth ballot was still McAdoo 415, Smith 323.
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 even the prohibition forces were drunk by this point.
Finally on July 9, Smith released his delegates and McAdoo very grudgingly followed suit, and a compromise candidate secured the nomination on the 103rd ballot. John W. Davis, a former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, was at last the nominee, and the longest and bitterest convention in American history mercifully came to an end.
Well, 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 this about the 1924 Democratic convention, “In this case the delegates, 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 (Davis) who embodied those very qualities for lack of which the party had almost destroyed itself.”
Third, despite the fact that John W. Davis was as fine a man as ever 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 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 both the GOP and the Democratic Party in July 2016. Contested conventions have not usually been as bitter as the 1924 Democratic convention, but the big winner in any “messy” convention has usually been the opposing party.
– Garland S. Tucker III is Chairman of Triangle Capital Corporation, Raleigh, N.C., a New York Stock Exchange listed specialty finance company and the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election (Emerald Books, 2010) and Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America – Jefferson to Reagan (ISI Books, 2015).