Ian Breen: Notes on Past Conventions

Since their inception in 1832, national political conventions have played an important but ever-evolving role in presidential elections. Over the years, changes in nominating procedures have lessened the political power of conventions, even as new broadcast technologies have increased their impact on voters. Four Atlantic articles spanning nearly one hundred years examine this changing role and lend perspective to the conventions taking place this election cycle.

In"Presidential Nominations" (April 1884), Oliver T. Morton addressed what he perceived to be a serious problem in the American electoral process: the tendency for political conventions to produce candidates that are neither the most capable leaders nor the choice of the majority of voters. Morton was writing at a time when conventions played a much more central role in selecting candidates. Until state primaries were instituted early in the twentieth century, delegates at the conventions made nominations and debated among themselves until a candidate was chosen. While this may sound to us like democracy in action, in fact the delegates were typically handpicked by state party bosses to ensure ahead of time that certain people would receive votes. The common voter only got to weigh in after the candidates had been chosen by the convention insiders."In truth," Morton wrote,"the people of this country have very little to do with the choice of the supreme magistrate, their option being restricted to two men, the creatures of two practically irresponsible conventions."

Not only were nominating conventions exclusive, Morton argued, they also typically produced mediocre candidates. He quoted John Stuart Mill, who had written of America's flawed candidate selection process,

In the United States...the strongest party never dares put forward any of its strongest men, because every one of these, from the mere fact that he has been long in the public eye, has made himself objectionable to some portion or other of the party, and is therefore not so sure a card for rallying all their votes as a person who has never been heard of by the public at all until he is produced as the candidate.

Morton thus felt that great Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant had come to power in spite of the conventions, rather than because of them. Their nominations, he believed, were due to"exceptional causes." He quoted a contemporary English economist, Walter Bagehot, who argued that Lincoln's nomination for the Presidency had been a matter of luck rather than an example of the nominating process functioning effectively.

It was government by an unknown quantity. Hardly any one in America had any living idea what Mr. Lincoln was like, or any definite notion what he would do...Mr. Lincoln, it is true, happened to be a man, if not of eminent ability, yet of eminent justness. But success in a lottery is no argument for lotteries.

In Morton's view, then, the exclusionary nature of the nominating conventions was an impediment to true democracy. Correcting the problem, he wrote,"necessitates a transfer of power from that body to the people." To that end, he outlined a series of measures designed to put power into the hands of the voters, many of which were similar to those that were eventually adopted in the state primary system....

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