Every presidential election cycle, political pundits bay for a contested convention. For younger electoral observers, it’s partly the novelty of the idea; the last party conventions with any real drama took place in 1976 for the Republicans (Ronald Reagan v. Gerald Ford) and 1980 for the Democrats (Jimmy Carter v. Ted Kennedy), long before any millennial — journalist or otherwise — was following politics.
The parties have since made mighty efforts to avoid such unpleasantness and have largely succeeded, until this most unusual of election years. Now, with the possibility looming that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz will win the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination outright, it seems the Republicans may have the first real convention drama in a generation.
Below are four tales from contested conventions, which are sure to stoke the blood lust of any 2016 political observer. Read these stories and it becomes clear why both parties have gone out of their way to avoid contested conventions and why the punditry is so keen to see one: These things get crazy, and occasionally downright violent — and the “winners” very often lose the general election.
But first, a quick semantic note: A brokered convention happens when no candidate is selected on the first ballot at the convention, and then deals are made by power brokers behind the scenes until some candidate is able to win the necessary votes; no convention of this kind has occurred since 1948 for the Republicans and 1952 for the Democrats, largely because power brokers no longer exert much influence over large blocs of delegates in either party. The below are contested conventions, which occur when the outcome isn’t certain as a result of the primaries, but the winner is determined on the first ballot.
Like most of his endeavors, Teddy Roosevelt pursued his 1912 presidential campaign — after having served as president from 1901 to 1909 — with great gusto. But challenging a sitting president is never easy, especially when the incumbent in question is your former friend and hand-selected successor. William Howard Taft had served as secretary of war at the end of Roosevelt’s brace of terms in the White House, but the portly president alienated many liberal Republicans by embracing the crusty old conservatism that had been the GOP’s party line before the Rooseveltian interruption.
Teddy decided to challenge his old subordinate for the Republican nomination, and victoriously swept through all the primaries but one. This was less impressive a feat than it sounds today, however. In 1912 primaries were only a few years old, and they would not become the preeminent form of presidential selection until the 1970s. Instead the question of who would win the Republican mantle was settled on the floor of the Coliseum in Chicago, where a prodigious amount of mud was slung. Taft called his charismatic and crowd-pleasing former boss “the greatest menace to our institutions that we have had in a long time.” For his part, the former president cast his campaign as a holy crusade. The night before the convention, Roosevelt assured a boisterous group of his supporters, “Fearless of the future, unheeding of our individual fates, with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”
For Taft and the Republican potentates, Roosevelt represented an existential threat. Not only did he desire greater public regulation of industry and a degree of legal protection for labor, but he also wanted an unprecedented third term. In those days, the party conventions were the perfect way to defeat such a menace. There were still power brokers who exerted iron control over the votes of state delegates and the complex working of the convention. It didn’t matter that Roosevelt won most primaries, enjoyed the support of the rank and file and entered the convention with 411 delegates to Taft’s 367.
The GOP blocked each of Roosevelt’s attempts to take over the convention, resulting in raucous cries of “Liars!” and “Steam roller!” — accompanied by Roosevelt supporters aping the sound of an onrushing train whenever they lost a vote. (They also rubbed pieces of sandpaper together en masse whenever the Taft-supporting convention chairman tried to speak.) The gambit was successful in the moment, but failed in the long term: Roosevelt ceded the convention fight, allowing Taft to win on the first ballot, but stormed out and formed his own third party. In a precedent that should send tremors of agitation through historically minded GOP operatives, the Democrats easily won the resulting general election as Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote.
The longest brokered convention was the 1924 cultural and political showdown between the Southern Democrats, supported by the shadowy forces of the Ku Klux Klan, and the urban Northeastern Democrats led by the political machine of Tammany Hall. They met in New York City, which served as an excellent backdrop for a party riven by issues of race, religion and Prohibition. Tammany’s man, Gov. Al Smith, was pitted against William G. McAdoo, son-in-law and secretary of Treasury to Woodrow Wilson. The event was marred by violence. Frequent fistfights broke out between the factions, while the NYPD made periodic sorties into the unruly crowd to restore order. Over 16 days, the Democrats voted 103 times to pick a nominee, but neither Smith nor McAdoo could win the required number of delegates.
Highlights of the convention included a riotous reception for Franklin Roosevelt’s nominating speech for Smith, during which strategically placed Tammany men rang cowbells, at least six bands heralded the news and a phalanx of taxis arrayed outside the hall sounded their horns in tribute. “The cacophony continued for an hour while furious McAdoo delegates formed squares around their women,” according to historian Mike Wallace. Later the bands ill advisedly played “Marching Through Georgia” — a song in praise of General Sherman’s scorched earth tactics — during a heated debate over the Ku Klux Klan. When Northern Democrats tried to insert an anti-Klan plank into the party’s platform, they were defeated by McAdoo’s forces. (He was thereafter greeted with cries of “Ku Ku McAdoo” by the Tammany men.) At the time, the white-supremacist terrorist group was at the peak of its powers, boasting 60,000 members in New Jersey alone (more than they had in Alabama). During the convention they held a massive July 4th rally in the Garden State with 15,000 attendees who beat down effigies of Smith and then set them alight.
Passions ran high throughout the event, as the two rivals seemed incapable of reaching a concord. The contenders were both eventually defeated because neither could win the necessary two-thirds of the delegate votes. By the 100th ballot Smith was in first place, but John W. Davis, a former Congressman pushed as a compromise candidate, had worked his way up to second place. He eventually won and then lost the general election badly.
In the 1948 Republican contest, the divisive issue was foreign affairs and America’s place in the world, framed within a contest between traditional conservatives based in the Midwest and coastal moderates. It was expected to be a Republican year, the first since 1928, and the hardline right-wingers, led by Sen. Robert Taft (son of Roosevelt’s friend-turned-antagonist), thought they had a lock on the nomination. They hadn’t taken seriously the threat of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, who had lost the 1944 presidential election to Franklin Roosevelt.
At the convention in Philadelphia, pageantry was in full effect. Taft marched a baby elephant through the lobbies of hotels where delegates were staying. (Historical records do not make note of what was done about the dung.) When the candidates’ names were put forward — a process that went on for nearly seven hours — each candidate’s supporters attempted to outdo the others. Harold E. Stassen’s supporters brought him in on a boat, accompanied by an honor guard that included “a Sioux Indian chief and the Scottish Highlanders,” as a bemused Newsday reporter noted. “They were the ones, too, who stacked the galleries and put two brass bands on the floor.”
Unfortunately, the displays of pomp and pageantry didn’t prove decisive. Neither the elephant nor the Highlanders managed to clinch the vote for their candidate. Dewey swept in on good old-fashioned organizing and behind-the-scenes power politics, quietly bestowing favors and promises to various state-level party bosses to win their support. He won on the third ballot, the last time such machinations would clinch a Republican nomination. Dewey then famously lost to Truman a few months later.
Brokered conventions may no longer be possible, but the Democratic experience in 1968 is proof that a contested convention can provide drama enough. The conservative Chicago Tribune set the tone of the convention months in advance of the start date, predicting that student protesters “working for Communist North Vietnam [are] planning to disrupt the Democratic convention.” It was known that Mayor Richard Daley was no slouch when it came to subduing an unruly gathering. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, he told a press conference that his police had been ordered to kill arsonists on-sight. (Looters would only be maimed with gunfire.) Despite this evidence of bloodlust, Abbie Hoffman, writing in the Village Voice, predicted that President Lyndon Johnson would have to bring in the 82nd Airborne “and 100,000 more troops” to subdue the protesters.
The exact politics of the 1968 convention were complicated by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Johnson’s late withdrawal from the race, which precluded Hubert Humphrey from running in the primaries. Instead a gaggle of “favorite son” candidates ran in his place, and the drama of the day lay in whether any of them, or Kennedy’s delegates, would break for Eugene McCarthy. The action got so heated in the convention hall that vendors were ordered not to serve ice cubes with drinks, for fear of arming enraged delegates with frozen missiles.
Of course the real drama would take place on the streets. The Chicago police beat protesters, reports and passersby whenever they gathered for an extended period of time. But it is the final confrontation on Michigan Avenue that was captured by the massed ranks of television cameras. “That night, scores of people were beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment, including twenty newsmen,” reported Mike Royko in his famous exposé-biography of Daley. Reporters had taken to wearing larger press credentials to ward off the nightstick blows, not realizing that the cops were specifically targeting journalists. The outsized badges “only served to attract the police like hungry sharks.” Some protesters were thrown into a conveniently located lagoon, as was one unfortunate bicycle commuter, while the police invaded the homes of some nearby Chicago residents to pursue their prey.
The nation was stunned. “If we had McGovern, we wouldn’t have the Gestapo in the Streets of Chicago,” Sen. Abraham Ribicoff told the convention. (Although there is dispute as to what exactly Daley shouted back at his slanderer, one reporter claimed to hear him say, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.”) Despite all this, Humphrey went on to win the nomination on the first ballot, and lost to Richard Nixon by a slim margin in the general.