The first two days of the Republican National Convention have been criticized for a variety of things, from its dark, menacing tone to its lack of narrative pacing to the first walk out of a state delegation since, I believe, 1948 to allegations Melania Trump plagiarized portions of her speech by borrowing several sentences, virtually verbatim, from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention address.
It’s too early to tell just how good or bad the RNC in 2016 is; we still have two more days to go so any verdict is clearly based on incomplete evidence. If Donald Trump wins in November, the problems of the convention will be forgotten, but if he loses it may join a pantheon of infamous national conventions that were so disorganized and combative that they clearly portended electoral disaster.
The very worst national political convention had to have been the 1860 Democratic National Convention, which met in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern “Fire-Eaters” walked out of the convention to prevent Stephen Douglas from securing the nomination, as Douglas was a fierce opponent of secession. The Democrats had to reconvene six weeks later in Baltimore and secessionists bolted again, but this time Douglas had arranged for enough alternate delegates to provide a quorum for his nomination. In a four-man race, Douglas carried only one state (Missouri) in the fall election.
Douglas won only 29.5 percent of the popular vote, yet that was still better than the 28.8 percent of the popular vote John Davis won as the Democratic nominee in 1924 in a three-way race that included Progressive Robert LaFollette. Davis was chosen as the Democrats’ standard-bearer after an incredible 103 ballots during a convention torn apart over debates about the Ku Klux Klan. The convention was so arduous that Will Rogers joked that men who attended it would be asked one day by their children, “Father, were you in the big war?” And the father would reply, “No, son, but I went through the New York convention.”
The 1968 Democratic National Convention is remembered almost exclusively for the clash between anti-war protestors and police on the streets of Chicago. Tear gas drifted into the convention hall where delegates cursed and shoved one another, reflecting the divisions outside the hall. Nominee Hubert Humphrey lost to RIchard Nixon in an election so close that Humphrey could rightly point to the chaos at the convention as the deciding factor that sealed his fate.
In 1972, Democrats were again badly divided as forces loyal to Humphrey tried to prevent the nomination of South Dakota Senator George McGovern, whose anti-war rhetoric was so strident that party regulars were sure it would lead to a landslide defeat. It did. The fight with Humphrey prevented McGovern from focusing on selecting a running mate until literally hours before the nomination needed to be presented to the convention. Since most leading Democrats refused to be considered, McGovern chose Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton without proper vetting. Weeks after the convention, McGovern forced Eagleton from the ticket after it was discovered Eagleton had received electro-shock therapy for depression. The convention was so chaotic that McGovern also was unable to give his acceptance speech at 2:45 a.m. EDT. McGovern was likely doomed to lose as 1972 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s presidency, but McGovern aides believe all the problems stemming from the convention cost McGovern ten or twelve states. McGovern, like Douglas, carried only one.
The most notorious Republican convention was likely 1964 in San Francisco. This was the year conservatives retook control of the GOP and nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater supporters made no effort to reconcile with the liberal wing of the Republican Party, loudly booing New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and refusing any compromises on the platform, especially on the issue of civil rights. Political commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak later wrote that conservative Republicans in 1964 made clear that they believed the GOP was “the White Man’s Party.” This refusal to unify the party was captured in Goldwater’s famous aphorism, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice .. moderation in the pursue of justice is not virtue.” Hearing that, a stunned reporter blurted out, “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”
These five notorious conventions suggest that the best definition of a failed convention is that it nominates a losing candidate, but there have been raucous conventions that nominated a winning candidate in the fall, and there have been losing candidates who came out of conventions that are still viewed with affection.
In 1952, Republicans went through a bitter fight in which the moderate/liberal wing out-foxed conservatives who had hoped to nominate “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft. In fact, 30 percent of the delegates voted for Taft rather than make future President Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination unanimous. Interestingly, 30 percent of Republican delegates in 2016 also declined to support Donald Trump. Since 1920, the only Republican nominee to receive less support at a convention that Trump or Eisenhower was Gerald Ford in 1976 when Ford was nearly upended by Ronald Reagan, who received the support of 47.5 percent of the delegates.
Four years earlier, in 1948, delegates from a half-dozen Southern states walked out after Democrats adopted a pro-civil rights plank in their platform. Despite this move by the so-called “Dixiecrats,” Harry Truman still won election in a four-way race.
Republicans were divided at their 1952 convention, but Democrats were unexpectedly found themselves united. Yet, that did not lead to a Democratic victory in November. The party had come into their convention in Chicago dispirited, convinced they would lose the White House after twenty years’ control because of President Harry Truman’s great unpopularity, mostly over the Korean War. Democratic spirits were revived when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson gave an eloquent welcoming address, which led to his (reluctant) acceptance of his party’s nomination. Stevenson lost to Eisenhower, the war hero, but his erudite campaign won millions of admirers and added a rare luster to political discourse that is still fondly remembered–and seldom repeated.
The 1896 Democratic convention, also held in Chicago, the site of many memorable conventions for both parties, also yielded a candidate who lost in the fall, but William Jennings Bryan had electrified the convention and changed the Democratic Party forever with his “Cross of Gold” speech. William McKinley, by contrast, ran a boring campaign and still won.
So, it is difficult to say what the early missteps of the 2016 Republican convention may mean for the fall general election. There are still two more days to address the perceived problems and have a successful convention — though success has two possible definitions.
Most (though not all) Republicans hope it means that Trump will win in November. On the other hand, this convention may simply mean that Trump has changed the Republican Party forever. Only history will eventually tell us whether, if that happens, it will be a good thing or a bad thing.