Political conventions have dramatically changed from places where candidates were selected, often in backrooms, to events where candidates usually have won the nomination through state-by-state popular competitions, with the conventions themselves turning into sales events for the winning nominees.
Last week's Republican Convention enabled the Republicans to accomplish three things: 1. humanize Mitt Romney and correct wrong assumptions about him; 2. establish the theme for the campaign — America is in economic trouble, job growth comes from getting government out of the way, let people build their businesses and government needs to fix its debt problem so we don't become Greece, and 3. show the amazing diversity of the growing conservative movement by highlighting rising stars like governors Nikki Haley and Susanna Martinez, Condi Rice and Mia Love, Sen. Marco Rubio and Clint Eastwood. (Well, not Clint Eastwood.)
One of the most famous old-style conventions was the Democrat Convention of 1924. The book “103rd Ballot” by Robert K. Murray tells the story of the longest convention in American history. Held in New York City, it went on and on — and on.
Delegates scrambled to find places to stay, candidates panicked trying to find money to help their delegates from far away even get the funds to eat, and chaos reigned.
William Gibbs McAdoo, the son-in-law of former President Woodrow Wilson, came into the convention with the most delegates. But they were anchored by delegations dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. His main opponent was New York Gov. Al Smith, who, had he been elected, would have been the first Catholic president of the United States.
The two sides weren't nice to each other, which the book describes in wonderful detail. It made my favorite president, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, all the more attractive to American voters.
“The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party” by Michael Bowen is a more dry analysis of running battles for Republican Party control through multiple conventions. It details how the so-called “Old Guard” conservatives wanting contrast to FDR battled the liberal Republicans who wanted FDR-lite fought for control of the Republican National Committee from 1944 through 1952.
New York Gov. Thomas Dewey's forces consistently out-organized the conservative supporters of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft in the conventions of 1944 and 1948 but led the GOP to defeat in the fall elections.
In one of the most bitter conventions of all (rivaled by the 1968 Democrat Convention) the Dewey forces, realizing Taft would win the nomination, switched to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and won (or stole) the nomination.
The unique contribution of this book is to establish that these conventions led to the rise of an alternative conservative movement eventually culminating with the victory of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 convention and Ronald Reagan leadership of America. Variations of these battles still occur today.
Today's conventions play a different role but still are pivotal in defining the choices of how America will be governed.