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« Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part One | Main | More Ron-ness »

January 14, 2008

When Political Conventions Mattered

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't maintain a database about this, but it seems like nearly every U.S. presidential election cycle hits a pre-convention stretch where one party or the other finds itself with no clear frontrunner and speculation surfaces that this situation will pravail at convention time. As of the time this is being written (14 January, from high above Lake Tahoe), lack of a frontrunner seems to be the case for both parties. A few weeks from now, the situation might well have changed.

At any rate, I've seen references on the Internet that the Republicans might find still themselves with no frontrunner this summer when their convention starts, but if there has been similar speculation regarding the Democrats, I've missed it so far.

History tells us that the last conventions where presidential voting went beyond the first ballot took place in 1952, when it took Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson three ballots each to win nomination.

Over the 56 years since then, national political conventions have evolved into public-relations packages intended to showcase the presumed (until balloting) nominee, unify and excite party members, showcase the party's platform and election talking points to a national audience and other assorted missions.

It's pretty boring stuff.

The 1952 conventions were exciting. I know, because I watched them on television.

Let me quality that. The conventions were the occasion when Seattle was finally linked to national live TV via a system of coaxial cables and microwave relays up the coast from San Francisco. Before that, we had to rely on film flown up the coast or west from Chicago or New York. So live TV from anyplace besides the KING-TV studio (the only station in town at the time) was a big deal in itself.

Also, I was three or four months shy of my 13th birthday and just becoming aware of politics. At that age, boys can easily get swept up in the crusading side of politics. In my case, I was a big Eisenhower fan. I really, really wanted him to be president, so I was keyed up for most of the duration of the Republican convention, my adrenaline fed by the uncertainty of it all.

There were fewer primary elections in those days, so delegate collecting was a mixture of winning primaries, getting caucus votes and getting political bosses to, in some cases, deliver the delegate votes of entire states. Once the convention was underway, state delegations would caucus between ballots. Depending on rules, an entire sate (winner take all) might shift, otherwise the vote distribution for a state could change in one direction or another. This shifting process could take quite a few ballots (more than 100 in one case) as politicians and campaign operatives would scurry around making pitches, issuing promises, hinting at threats -- whatever it might take to influence even a handful of votes.

I mentioned that the conventions were televised. But TV coverage in those days was far different from what we see now, and that largely had to do with technology. At the most superficial level, TV was black-and-white: no color. TV cameras were not portable; they were big boxes filled with unreliable (compared to transistors and microcircuits) vacuum tubes ("valves" for you Brits). Cameras were positioned high above the convention floor and the closest image they provided would be a telephoto lens shot of a reporter with his (probably -- I didn't research this detail) cord connected microphone interviewing a senator, governor, state chairman or other delegate of interest. A primitive version of an anchor desk for each network also would be found near the rafters of the convention hall, ideally with a window and view of the floor as backdrop.

Crude it was by today's standards, but gloriously high-tech in 1952. And the drama was real because the outcome was not foreordained. I did a lot of floor-pacing during ballots when the roll of states was called: "Mr. Chairman. The greaaat state of Illinois, home of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, casts its..."

I hope you get the idea.



posted by Donald at January 14, 2008


We've gotten to the point at which the public-relations aspect is the only real reason for the parties to hold their conventions. I'm too young to remember the old, smoke-filled-room style, but in some ways that almost seems better.

Posted by: Peter on January 14, 2008 3:25 PM

The networks don't even really carry the conventions much any more, due to the lack of suspense and attendant low ratings. My parents were convention-addicts, at least up until the Watergate years, after which they were disillusioned---not because of the corruption of the Nixon White House, but because the bad, bad liberal press had run their hero, Nixon, out of power.

I was still pretty little, but I have vague memories of the 1968 Dem Convention, and the violence in the streets between the cops and the students. I guess that substituted for multiple ballots in reaching a nominee for the provision of drama.

I actually have no memory of this, but I've read that the '72 Dem Convention was so horribly organized and planned that McGovern didn't even get on stage to make his acceptance speech until 2 in the morning---way after prime time, thereby getting essentially no free publicity out of it. His campaign manager?? Gary Hart.

The Repubs seem to have no such disorganizational glitches. They shoot themselves in the foot at their conventions from time to time anyway---when Gerald Ford invited Ronald Reagan up on stage at the '76 convention and Reagan looked like a million bucks in his immaculate white suit and suntan and made Ford look like the dullest man alive and took the steam out of the republican operatives. Or when Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle gave their horrifyingly out of touch speeches at the '92 convention, about how blacks and hispanics were ruining the values of the country and how women really just wanted to be June Cleaver, etc. No surprise---Bush Sr. lost the election to an opponent who was at least in touch enough to know what supermarket scanners were and used a Fleetwood Mac song for his rallies.

I still like watching the acceptance speeches--but maybe I'm a sap.

Posted by: annette on January 14, 2008 4:35 PM


Great piece. It brings back many fond memories of the political conventions of the 60s, which I watched at my mother's knee. (She sent me to bed during the 68 Democratic convention, though - too violent for an eight-year-old to be watching.)

I think there are some real reasons why the national political convention has changed over the years, starting with the Democratic conventions of 1968 and 1972. As Annette suggested, the 72 Democratic convention was, I think, a turning point both for the Democratic party and for the way political conventions were managed and televised. (I also think she was spot on with her analysis of the 1976 Republican convention, when the last-night appearance of Ronald Reagan caused the delegates to realize, to their horror, what they had just done in nominating Ford. I take some exception with her analysis of Buchanan's 1992 speech, but that's another topic!)

The developments that have taken place over the last 40 or so years are fascinating, at least to me. There's too much to go over in this limited space, but I took a crack at it in this piece from our own site. Perhaps it's just political junkies (or nostalgia buffs) who long for those days, and if that's the case I'll plead guilty.

Posted by: Mitchell on January 15, 2008 10:25 PM

The Democrats took three ballots to nomination Stevenson; the Republicans picked Ike on the first ballot.

The Democrats have had 43 conventions, of which 15 were multi-ballot. The Democrats of course had a 2/3 rule for their first 25 conventions, 14 of which were multi-ballot.

The Republicans have had 38 conventions, of which 8 were multi-ballot.

Each party has had 14 conventions after 1952. Of the 53 earlier conventions, 13 (6 D, 7 R) were uncontested renominations of the incumbent President.

Thus there were 29 conventions before 1952 without a 2/3 rule; of these 9 were multi-ballot.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 18, 2008 11:50 PM

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