The History of Political Conventions


Both the Democratic and Republican parties head into what promise to be historic conventions.  We will cover how the original process (Congressional Caucuses) gave way to conventions and how conventions evolved with the advent of primaries and caucuses prior to the convention.  We will also highlight some noteworthy conventions such as the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the 1976 Republican Convention in which Gerald Ford faced a challenge from an upstart named Ronald Reagan.

Key Lecture Points

  • The 2016 Republican National Convention (RNC) will be held in Cleveland , OH from July 18-21, 2016.  The 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) will be held in Philadelphia, PA from July 25-28, 2016.
  • The presidential nominating convention dates back to the 1820s when, as political party membership expanded, Americans became frustrated with the practice of allowing a caucus of Congressional party leaders to choose the nominee.  The new convention system was, arguably, more democratic, allowing a wider swath of the American public to participate.
  • Born of the late 19th and early 20th century Progressive Movement, political primaries eventually came to challenge nomination-by-convention just as the conventions themselves had challenged the earlier Congressional caucus system.  Many Progressive Era activists were determined to rid politics of those ‘backroom dealings” thought to characterize the convention process.  While the primary movement died down after WWI, it was revived in the wake of WWII in the midst of renewed discontent with the convention system.
  • By the 1950s, and certainly by the 1960s, Americans had again lost faith in the prevailing nomination system.  The distrust of government in general fostered by the Vietnam War led to a distrust of political parties and their institutions, including the convention system.  While the Republican Party had reformed their nomination process gradually, the Democratic Party did so under enormous pressure and fallout following the 1968 DNC.  For both parties, however, the changes implemented meant that primary elections came to replace the convention as the means of choosing a nominee.  Not only were primaries given more power in delegate choice, but delegates were also later bound to vote for the candidate they were elected to choose.  Combined, these changes have led to conventions becoming more of a formality in the choice of presidential nominees, with delegates merely confirming the primary election results.

Exploration Questions

  • To what extent does the current primary system of nomination improve upon the past convention system?
  • Do you expect Americans to demand reform of the primary system in the near future?  On what basis might this occur?

Reflective Questions

  • What do you remember about the 1968 DNC in Chicago?  About its aftermath?
  • When do you remember first voting in a primary election?  How did it make you feel about the American political system?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Kusch, Frank. Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. University of Chicago Press, 2008. 206 pages. Based on interviews with over 80 Chicago police officers present during the 1968 DNC, the author goes deeper into the story of this volatile event and the larger political upheaval that it represented.
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  • Gold, Victor. Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP. Sourcebooks, 2008. 246 pages. Perhaps the only book critical of today’s Republican Party and President Bush that comes from a party insider. Gold served as an aid to Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and senior advisor to George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, bookends to a 40-year career in the heart of the Republican Party.
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