We’re hearing a lot lately about the possibility of a brokered convention when Republicans gather in Cleveland in July.
In a brokered convention, no single candidate registers the requisite number of delegates on the first ballot (in this case 1,237) to secure the nomination for president. Depending on your perspective (i.e., whether or not you like Donald Trump) a brokered convention could be a very good or an extremely bad thing for the GOP.
Back in the day, it was called a “brokered convention” because there were party bosses and elites hanging out in smoke filled rooms ready to make deals in the event the convention delegates failed their duty to nominate a candidate for president on the first ballot. Numerous factors have rendered these power brokers obsolete in recent history leaving convention delegates somewhat on their own to work out differences should they arise today.
Believe it or not, brokered conventions are quite common in our history. While they haven’t happened recently, there are many examples of them. In most cases, they rendered poor results. A party severely splintered doesn’t easily back a candidate to victory. Then again, at least one very notable president with a lovely memorial in Washington, D.C., began his lengthy residence at the White House via a brokered convention. That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt who began his historic presidential reign after being selected on the fourth ballot at the Democratic National Convention in 1932.
While Republicans face the possibility of a rather nasty brokered convention this time around, Democrats have a bit more experience with really ugly convention battles.
If you’re old enough, you probably remember the 1968 Democratic Convention where violence broke out across Chicago over the Vietnam War. But you have to be really old to have even the faintest recollection of one of the worst conventions in American history and that would be the 1924 contest between Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo and New York Governor Al Smith.
Before elaborating further, let me remind you that in 1924 if you wanted to plug into the world you warmed up the family radio and gathered around. There was no television, cable news networks, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and (gasp) Twitter. Now before I share the rest of the story, imagine what could have transpired if all these varied means of communication existed during the 1924 convention.
New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted the Democrats that year. Their site selection committee chose that spot in hopes of helping the Big Apple shed its rather sketchy image at the time. Needless to say, convention events did little to help.
For starters, Secretary McAdoo enjoyed most of his support from a rather loud yet controversial group experiencing resurgence in popularity at the time, the Ku Klux Klan. By contrast, Governor Smith gleaned a significant amount of his support from anti-prohibition advocates and voters who despised lynching and racism. Needless to say this latter fact only added to the tension between the two camps. Smith’s Catholicism only added fuel to the fire.
McAdoo came to the convention the clear leader. Yet, it quickly became evident that securing the nomination would be no easy task for him. Opposition was fierce. For sixteen days and over 103 ballots, Democrats battled. Some of the proceedings were downright surreal. At one point, about 10,000 Klansmen gathered across the river in New Jersey to celebrate in their own way the defeat of a resolution condemning them. This event alone left the 1924 Convention with the moniker “the Klanbake.”
Delegates finally managed with what little they had left in them to agree on a nominee, none other than the very nondescript John W. Davis who predictably lost to Republican Calvin Coolidge. Al Smith lived to run another day only to lose to Herbert Hoover in 1928.
And William McAdoo? He’s remembered for a couple of famous quotes most notably, “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument” and his assessment that Warren G. Harding’s “speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.”
While insulting, at least it sounds more dignified than some of the jabs thrown around in the current GOP contest.
As the dust settled over the 1924 convention, humorist Will Rogers offered the most memorable quote of them all, “I do not belong to any organized party. I am a Democrat.”
So while we mull over all the possibilities at the Republican Convention this summer including wishful thinking by some on the left that the GOP’s days are numbered, remember that it could indeed be worse.
We need look no further than the Democrat’s history to see that.