How did party conventions come about and what purpose do they serve?

As the Republicans hold their National Convention this week and the Democrats prepare for theirs later in the month, I'm curious about the origins of the national political conventions in the United States. What purpose did they originally serve and what purposes do they serve now?

In the early nineteenth century, a party's presidential candidate was nominated by a congressional caucus. Members of Congress from the same party would meet and recommend a nominee. The Anti-Mason party held the first political convention in 1831. The Anti-Masons had little congressional representation, so they held a general meeting in Baltimore with 116 delegates from thirteen states. They chose a nominee and discussed issues that would be part of their campaign.

The following year the Democratic-Republicans (now known as the Democrats) held their first convention in Baltimore. The primary purpose of this convention was to show popular support for Andrew Jackson and to select Martin Van Buren as his running mate. The Democratic-Republicans, and later their Republican opponents continued to hold conventions to nominate a candidate for president and discuss issues that were central to the party.

Party leaders were the primary players at the conventions. Public participation was minimal. State party bosses controlled delegate selection. Throughout the nineteenth century, conventions were used to broker the various interests and unite the divisions within the party. A lot of deal making took place behind closed doors and rank-and-file party members had little say in the process. During the Progressive movement in the early 1900s, reform oriented politicians began making demands for change. They hoped to make the nomination process more democratic.

In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged incumbent William Howard Taft. Roosevelt won nine primaries compared to Taft's one and had captured over 40 percent of the delegates. Despite this, Taft still won the nod of the party bosses and got the nomination. In opposition to the boss dominated politics at the convention more states began to adopt primaries. Primaries, however, were not considered to be an important part of the nomination process. State primaries were considered "beauty contests" used to demonstrate a candidate's popularity, but they were not necessarily key to getting a nomination.

The comparative irrelevance of primaries changed dramatically after 1968. Senator Eugene McCarthy, running on an antiwar platform, challenged Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. To the surprise of many, McCarthy received over 42 percent of the vote. Four days after McCarthy's strong showing, Robert Kennedy, another antiwar senator declared his candidacy. With opposition to the war mounting, Johnson bowed out of the election, clearing the way for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey to run. Hoping to get the nomination at the national convention, Humphrey intentionally prolonged his announcement and precluded a primary.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was probably the most tumultuous political convention in the modern era. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in the spring of that year. Convention delegates meeting in Chicago were sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. To make matters worse, thousands of protesters calling for an end to the war were marching in the streets of Chicago. Clashes between the protesters and police eventually erupted and were broadcast on national television.

Humphrey could not match the grassroots organization that McCarthy had, but he did have the support of most state party bosses. When it became clear that Humphrey would likely receive the nomination, many delegates felt cheated. They demanded and got promises to reform the convention process. The convention approved the establishment of a party committee to examine current rules and make recommendations designed to broaden participation. This committee became known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission.

Chaired by Senator George McGovern and Congressman Donald Fraser, the commission recommended that registered Democratic voters should have "the maximum feasible opportunity to participate in the delegate selection process." The commission also recommended that women, minorities and young people should be represented based on the proportion of their population within each state. There were also other suggestions designed to make the nomination process more democratic.

In the wake of the McGovern-Fraser Commission's recommendations, the Republican National Committee established the Delegates and Organization Committee. The committee was charged with examining the Republican delegate selection process and make recommendations for the 1972. Their recommendations included:

  1. Ensuring an equal number of male and female delegates in each state convention.
  2. Establishing a quota for delegates under 25 years of age.
  3. Maintaining a required level of minority membership on the four standing committees of the national conventions.

As a consequence of these two committees, delegate selection for the conventions has become more democratic and more demographically representative. Party bosses no longer have the same influence that they used to.

Today, conventions perform the following functions:

  1. Formally nominate the president and vice president.
  2. Serve as the party's highest policy-making organ
  3. Adopt a party platform.

While the nomination of the president is virtually sewn up by the time the conventions roll around, the choice for vice president is usually not made known until the convention or shortly before. This was the case with Bush's recent selection of Dick Cheney. Delaying the choice of a running-mate is a commonly used strategy to build public excitement and anticipation for the convention.

Since national conventions only occur every four years, party leaders and delegates use this time to discuss rules that govern the party. In off convention years, parties are governed by the national committees, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the Republican National Committee (RNC). During meetings they can adopt new rules and discuss the concerns of the party at the state level.

Parties will also adopt a party platform. These platforms are made public during the conventions and highlight key policy issues and positions that each party stands for. Many of these issues include salient positions on topics such as abortion and taxes. Party member may be divided on some issues. For example, while Republicans have opted for a pro-life platform, some party members support a pro-choice position.

In any event, primary goal of conventions is to help unify the party and present itself in the best light possible before the general elections in November. To show a unified front, conventions are often highly scripted. This may account for some of the public's recent lack of interest in conventions. Still, the public can count on hearing from some of the nation's most prominent political figures during prime time key note addresses.

Contributing Author, Shad Satterthwaite, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma