Brief History of Contested Republican Conventions

by Jonathan Hobratsch

I write this blog in light of the lasting discussion of a possible contested Republican convention in 2016 election. While historically common, a contested convention has not occurred 40 years. The following is a brief history of each contested Republican national convention from the past. After reading this, how do you feel the convention of 2016 might play out? 

1856 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, PA

Ballots: 11

Leader on the first ballot: Rep. Nathaniel Banks of MA

Ultimate Nominee: Fmr Sen. John C. Fremont of CA

The Republican Party started out as a single-issue third party but quickly evolved into the leading alternate to the older Democratic Party after the fragmentation of the Whig Party. The primary Whig party leaders, such as William Seward, Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase, were not candidates for the presidency, since they didn’t expect their party to win in 1856. As such, five minor candidates were nominated at the convention, with Nathaniel Banks, the controversial Speaker of the House, leading on the first 10 ballots.

Banks was something of a fence-sitter. He had recently been both a Democrat and a member of the anti-immigrant, anti-catholic Know-Nothing Party. As the most powerful candidate, and as someone who represented issues outside of the slavery question, Banks held on as frontrunner for some time.

The ultimate nominee, John C. Fremont, was a famous explorer who made five expedition throughout the relatively unknown Western part of the continent. As such, he was appointed Military Governor of California, and he became its first US Senator once it became a state, as an anti-slavery Democrat. Despite these offices, he was actually politically inexperience and naive, as he was isolated from the political scene of the rest of the country. At the convention, Fremont was in second place through four ballots, the gap between him and Banks increasing each time. He fell to third place behind Supreme Court Justice John McLean for the next six ballots. After the tenth ballot, Banks withdrew from the race and endorsed Fremont. McLean, having lost ballots and not willing to lose his position on the court, decided to do the same. John C. Fremont became the first Republican nominee.

1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, IL

Ballots: 3

Leader on the first ballot: Gov. William Seward of NY

Ultimate nominee: Fmr Rep. Abraham Lincoln of IL

William Seward saw himself as the Henry Clay of his party. That is, the undeniable leader of his party, just as Clay had been for the Whig Party for decades. Since the Democratic Party had split, Seward expected to be the 16th president. Unfortunately, Seward faced competition from at least other narcissists, such as Salmon P. Chase and Simon Cameron, both who also saw in themselves a Henry Clay. Additionally, the Republican Party, which had focused on abolitionism in the past, was moderating itself to include more former Whigs and dissatisfied Democrats. Seward did not adapt to the times and reached his ceiling on delegates who could favor both radical Republicanism or Seward-brand majesty. Seward held onto first place for two of the three ballots.

Former one-term US Representative Abraham Lincoln, who had been an option for Vice President in 1856, held second place after the first ballot. His name was fresh in everyone’s ear after his eloquent debate performances against Stephen A. Douglas in a losing bid for a US Senate seat. He had also risen a crowd to his feet with a recent speech at the Cooper Union building in New York City. He was seen as moderate on the slavery issue compared to Seward, Chase and a few others, but not too moderate, like former slave-owner Edward Bates. Additionally, he hadn’t any of the reputation for political corruption as Cameron had. Most important of all, Lincoln had home-field advantage, and he filled the convention center with as many Illinois citizens as possible.

After the first ballot, Simon Cameron dropped out, along with most of the minor candidates. In the second ballot, both Seward and Lincoln gained, with Lincoln now virtually tied with Seward. Chase’s support slipped slightly, while Bates fell noticeably. On the third and final ballot, it was obvious that Lincoln was overtaking Seward, and so Chase and Bates dropped out. Their support, as well as some of Seward’s support, handed Lincoln the nomination.

All four of Lincoln’s major convention competitors received cabinet appointments, with Seward receiving the top spot as Secretary of State. Some say this inspired Barack Obama to act similarly following his victory in 2008.

1876 Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio

Ballots: 7

Leader on the first ballot: Rep. James G. Blaine

Ultimate nominee: Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes

This was the first contested Republican convention in 16 years, since Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant had relatively solid support in the last three conventions. Grant wanted a 3rd term, despite a scandal-ridden presidency, but he was talk out of it. As such, the field was wide open. Six major candidates, along with several minor candidates, vied for the nomination.

Speaker of the House James G. Blaine was the leader of the Half-Breeds, the moderate wing of the party that sought political reform. However, heading into the convention he was plagued by a scandal involving an illegal transaction and by ill health. While he was considered innocent of any wrongdoing,  it still harmed his electability. A rousing nomination speech, dubbing Blaine as a “plumed knight,” helped Blaine gain a massive lead on the first ballot, but he had difficulty increasing this lead. The radical Republican establishment, which favored a continued domination over the defeated South, soon rallied against him by the 7th ballot, and blocked a potential Blaine victory by endorsing a compromise candidate.

The second-tier candidates were Sen. Oliver Morton, Sec. Benjamin Bristow and Sen. Roscoe Conkling. Morton was in poor health and had a controversial past on economic issues. Bristow of Kentucky was both a popular reformist and an economic wizard. Bristow could also claim to be the heir of Grant, since he was in his cabinet. However, rumors spread that by being a reformist, and by uprooting corruption, that he was, in fact, disloyal to Grant. The last of the second-tier candidates, Roscoe Conkling of New York, was the leader of the Stalwart, establishment faction of the party, which was opposed to reform and desired a continued domination over the South. He had been a leading spokesperson for Grant, and considered himself as heir to Grant. Unfortunately, the corruption of both Grant and of New York machine politics worked against him in a reformist era.

The third-tier included two politicians who had also been Civil War generals: John Hartranft of Pennsylvania and Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Hayes had the firm support of his state and solid endorsements from influential Sen. John Sherman (brother of General Sherman) and James Russell Lowell, who was a popular poet and ambassador during the time.

Since Blaine was unable to win the nomination, and the anti-Blaine faction was unable to gain a victory over Blaine with Stalwart candidate, Hayes was selected as a compromise choice. To ensure harmony, Rep. William Wheeler, who was an anti-Conkling New Yorker, was selected as vice president. Hayes accepted Wheeler on his ticket, even though he admitted that he had no idea who Wheeler was. Hayes would have to make another, greater compromise upon winning the general election.

1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 36

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Pres. Ulysses S. Grant

Ultimate nominee: Rep. James A. Garfield

This was one of the stranger conventions. Incumbent president Rutherford B. Hayes fulfilled his promise to serve only one term. Three major candidates emerged on the first ballot as viable candidates: Former president Ulysses S. Grant, Half-Breed leader Sen. James G. Blaine, and Sec. John Sherman (brother of General Sherman).

Grant’s popularity had increased since he left office, so Roscoe Conking, the leader of the establishment wing of the party, pushed for the former president’s nomination. Grant ignored criticism that he was violating the two-term precedence, and accepted Conkling as his potential kingmaker, despite personally favoring Half-Breeds, like Blaine at this time. Grant was the strongest candidate, but he was now associated with the controversial Conkling of New York machine politics.

Blaine, as mentioned earlier, was the leader of the reform-minded Half-Breeds, who had nearly won the nomination in 1876. He had previously served as Speaker of the House and was now a powerful Senator from Maine. Blaine was the defact anti-Grant/Conkling nominee; however, like Conkling, Blaine had his enemies. Those with the most influence have the most enemies.

John Sherman was President Hayes preferred successor, but he did not go out of his way to support him. Rep. James A. Garfield gave Sherman’s unimpressive nominating speech. While respected for his intellect, Sherman lacked the charisma necessary to win delegates in a convention. He had to settle as a hing between Grant and Blaine.

Several minor candidates were nominated, but the ultimate victor, Garfield, did not received a vote until the second ballot, when he received 1 vote. Future president Benjamin Harrison and incumbent president Hayes also received a token vote during points of the balloting process.

Grant held the lead through 35 ballots, with his delegate count staying approximately the same throughout. Blaine maintained second place during these ballots, losing a few on ballot 35. Sherman was in third place throughout 35 ballots, increasing his delegates significantly after the 28th ballot, when many minor candidates dropped out.

However, Sherman’s rise was never to amount to anything. On ballot 33, a few of Sherman’s supporters switched to Blaine to see if that could defeat Grant/Conkling. On the next ballot, a few of Sherman’s supporters and delegates who had been favoring minor candidates back the unsuspected James Garfield, who then rose from virtually non-existent to 5th place. On the 35th ballot, a small segment of Blaine, Sherman and minority delegates also backed Garfield, rising him to 4th place. The Stop Grant Movement saw that Garfield might win support from both Blaine and Sherman supporters, and Blaine preferred Garfield to Sherman. Thus, Sherman dropped out, sending his men to Garfield, when most of Blaine’s supporters switched to the compromise choice they preferred. Garfield won a narrow victory over Grant on the 36th ballot.

Garfield was stunned speechless in victory. To appease Conkling supporters, Garfield accepted mutton-chopped Chester A. Arthur as his VP, a known Conkling crony with no major political experience. Garfield made Blaine his Secretary of State.

1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 4

Leader on the first ballot: Sec. James G. Blaine

Ultimate winner: Sec. James G. Blaine

The third of four straight contested conventions was one of the few that saw a sitting president fail to receive renomination. Incumbent president Chester A. Arthur had upset former Stalwarts by breaking with Roscoe Conkling and backing assassinated President James A. Garfield’s civic reforms. Arthur was also seen by some as a lazy president, working infrequently and spending much of his time socializing rather than working. This allowed three-time candidate James G. Blaine of Maine to emerge as a strong alternate once again.

The Stalwart faction mostly dissipated following Grant’s convention defeat in 1880 and Arthur’s ousting of Conkling’s influence in the Garfield/Arthur presidency.  With reformists in control, it seemed obvious that the lead Half-Breed, Blaine of Maine, should take the cake. Blaine initially attempt to push General William T. Sherman to run, but Sherman famously declined.

During the convention the overwhelming majority of delegates supported either the sitting president or Blaine. Six other candidates received a smaller amount of votes, including John Sherman and Stalwart John Logan. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and John Sherman’s brother, General William Sherman, received a few token votes.

Arthur had the support of big business and Southern Republicans, many who had received jobs from Arthur. While a surprise reformist, the Half-Breeds elected to go with their leader over a former Conklingite who could switch back. Blaine held the lead over Arthur on every ballot. On the 4th ballot, Blaine won the nomination with the unexpected endorsements of John Sherman and John Logan.

Blaine would go on to lose a close election to Grover Cleveland. It would be the first Republican electoral defeat since 1856. Some blame Arthur, who did not campaign for Blaine. Arthur was in ill health and would die only two years after this convention.

1888 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois


Leader on the first ballot: Sen. John Sherman

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Benjamin Harrison

The fourth of four straight contested conventions occurred after the Republican’s first electoral defeat in nearly three decades. Six major candidates attempted to play the role of party savior: Sen. John Sherman, Sen. Benjamin Harrison, Gov. Russell Alger, Judge Walter Gresham, Sen. William Allison, and businessman Chauncey Depew.

Former nominee James G. Blaine was considered a frontrunner heading into the convention, but he took himself out of the race. With Blaine out, John Sherman believed it was finally his turn for the nomination.

Sherman held a strong lead on the first ballot, with Gresham as the only apparent threat.  However, by the 5th ballot Sherman could not win over any more supporters and he hit his delegate ceiling. Gresham, who had the support of rural Republicans and was practically a Democrat, reached his delegate ceiling at the 3rd ballot. The other candidates, except for Harrison,  who was in 5th place after the first ballot, failed to win much support outside of their respective states.

After the 3rd ballot, Depew and several minor candidates dropped out. The freed delegates, as well as some of Gresham’s supporters, went to Harrison, while a few went to Blaine, who was still refusing to be a candidate. Thus, Harrison jumped to second place. By the sixth ballot, Harrison had narrowed the gap with Sherman to a near tie, following a brief attempt by a few delegates to draw attention to future president William McKinley as a compromise choice. On the next ballot, Blaine’s support went for Harrison as did some of Algers and Shermans backers. While Sherman and Harrison both lacked charisma, Harrison was at least a dynamic speaker at times. Both were from the same region. On the next and final ballot, the majority of all delegates switched to Harrison.

Harrison would bring the Republicans back to the White House, as well as become the first grandson of a president to be elected. It should be noted that the convention saw the first African-American to receive delegates in a Republican convention. Frederick Douglass received a vote on the 4th ballot. Two sons of former presidents, Robert Todd Lincoln and Frederick Dent Grant, also received token votes.

1912 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 1

Leader on the 1st ballot: Pres. William H. Taft

Ultimate nominee: Pres. William H. Taft

The first contested convention in 24 years lasted for only a single ballot. The 1912 election was also the first election with primaries; although, every state did not have primaries.

The incumbent Taft was seen by some as too conservative for this progressive age. Disappointed in his chosen successor, former president Theodore Roosevelt, ran for a non-consecutive term. Roosevelt was built for primaries, easily winning 9 of the 12 states that had them. Progressive Republican Robert La Follette won two of the states, while Taft won only one state.

Despite the overwhelming popular support for Roosevelt, the Republican establishment preferred the less independently-minded Taft. The establishment opted against a compromise candidate and worked to ensure an easy Taft renomination on the first ballot. This done, Roosevelt accused the party of fraud, and the progressives stormed out to selecting Theodore Roosevelt as their nominee for president.

The split in the party handed the general election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, in what should have been a landslide victory for the Republicans.

1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 10

Leader on the first ballot: Gen. Leonard Wood

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Warren G. Harding

After two electoral defeats to the Democrats, the Republican Party felt confident of a victory in the post-World War I era. The question now was who would be the next president? Former president Theodore Roosevelt, who sat out of the 1916 election, was the presumptive frontrunner for 1920, but he died unexpectedly in 1919, and General John J. Pershing, hero of WWI, declined to contest.

This gap paved the way for three candidates with support. General Leonard Wood had the support of both Roosevelt and Pershing fans. Gov. Frank Lowden had proved to be a tough-minded governor, who supported some popular progressive measures; however, his failure to reign in government spending hurt him with some of the delegates. Sen. Hiram Johnson, Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate  for the Progressive Bull Moose Party of 1912, became the top choice for the progressive wing of the party. Many minor candidates including progressive icon Robert La Follette and future presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover received a few votes. Sen. Warren G. Harding was in 6th place on the first ballot, having the support of his state of Ohio.

With Wood and Johnson splitting the majority of the progressive votes, and Lowden seen as too independent by the more conservative establishment, a new candidate was sought. Wood held the lead for four ballots and then lost the lead occasionally to Lowden over the next four ballots. Johnson hardly expanded beyond his strong 3rd place start. Despite this, Johnson refused to drop out, and neither of the three major candidates considered a compromise candidate. Harding was overlooked because he had performed poorly in the primaries.

During one of the convention nights, Harding’s forces spoke with several influential Republicans to convince them to support Harding in the event that Wood, Lowden or Johnson cannot get the nomination. Harding was known to be likable, malleable to the Republican establishment, and he could certainly win the important state of Ohio. Besides, as his campaign manager put it, “he looked like a president.”

With renewed support, Harding leaped over Johnson to third place on the seventh ballot. He slowely drained votes from other candidates for the next few ballots, until a large portion of Lowden supporters switched to Harding on ballot 9. Harding was now in first place. Most of Wood and Johnson’s supporters failed to budge for the next ballot, but about everyone else endorsed Harding.

Harding would also win the general election, becoming one of the worst American presidents, before mercifully dying. Some say that the batch of Republican candidates in 1920 was exceptional, and that by compromising, they selected the least competent of the bunch.

1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ballots: 6

Leader on the first ballot: Mr. Thomas Dewey, an attorney

Ultimate nominee: Wendell Wilkie, a businessman

The Republicans expected to lose to popular Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was running for an unconventional 3rd term, during the early years of World War II. Out of the candidates, only two major politicians had support for the nomination: Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. Two more candidates with supports included two minor politicians: attorney Thomas Dewey and businessman Wendell Wilkie.

Taft, the son of former president William H. Taft, led the conservative wing of the party that opposed the New Deal and military intervention. Dewey was politically moderate and was well-known for taking on the mafia in the courtroom and winning. Vandenberg was a less a slightly less conservative alternative to Taft, who also opposed intervening into World War II. Wilkie was a businessman and a former Democrat that still supported the New Deal and was the only major candidate in favor of aiding allies in World War II.

Each candidate had downsides. Taft was too conservative and non-interventionist for the 1940s. Dewey had no foreign policy and he was only about 38 years old. Vandenberg lacked the energy to campaign nationwide. Wilkie’s platform was not much different than FDR’s, according to some, and he had not participated in any of the primaries.

On the first ballot, Dewey held a massive lead, with Taft and Wilkie in second and third. Vandenberg greatly under performed and barely held a lead over the 5th placed candidate, Gov. Arthur James. By the third ballot, neither Dewey nor Taft could secure the nomination. Some of Dewey’s supporters followed minor candidate delegates who had switched to fellow moderate Wilkie. More of Dewey’s supporters moved to Wilkie, who emerged to the top of the ballot. Dewey dropped out for ballot five, with most of his support going to Wilkie, and those who thought Wilkie too liberal, going for Taft. On the next ballot, the minor candidates, as well as Vandenberg’s supporters, handed Wilkie the victory. It should be noted that former president Herbert Hoover also received a handful of votes throughout the balloting process, but he was never seriously considered.

Wilkie allowed the convention to select the vice president. Oddly, he was forced to take on a leader of the “Stop Wilkie” Movement, Charles McNary. Overall, Wilkie seemed like a good candidate in some ways, since he wouldn’t drastically oppose the popular New Deal plans or ignore events in Europe, but he may have been similar enough to FDR that he couldn’t pull many votes from him.

1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 1

Ultimate nominee: General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Incumbent Democratic president Harry S. Truman was so unpopular that the Republicans were virtually guaranteed the presidency in 1952. As such, this nomination amounted to selecting the next president, rather than just a nominee. The leader of the conservative wing, Robert Taft, saw himself as the proper candidate to counter the Roosevelt-Truman years, especially after the moderate, Thomas Dewey wing, of the party failed in several elections in a row. His only major competitor was World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was courted by both Democrats and Republicans, until Dewey won him over. Dewey had opposed Taft’s non-interventionist platform throughout the 1940s, and Eisenhower was a perfect post-war internationalist. The convention thus pitted a seasoned politicians with an international celebrity.

The 1952 nominating convention is arguably as controversial as the 1912 convention, with one wing of the party once again crying foul. Initially, both major candidates were about tied in the balloting process. However, Eisenhower’s supporters, led by moderate leader Thomas Dewey, announced that Taft’s supporters had illegally blocked Eisenhower from getting delegates placed in the South. Taft denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the convention voted to realign the delegates in the contested area, despite Taft’s protests. After the shift, Eisenhower easily won the nomination. Eisenhower agreed to take on the younger, more conservative Richard Nixon as his vice president.

Following the convention, Eisenhower met with Taft privately to smooth things out between the wings of the party, making some small concessions, such as agreeing to cut federal spending.

1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri

Ballots: 1

Ultimate nominee: President Gerald Ford

This convention is the last contested convention, since two major candidate entered the convention without a enough primary delegates for victory, although incumbent President Gerald Ford led slightly in delegates and in overall votes over former Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford held the support of the moderate, establishment Republicans and Reagan held the hearts of the ever-growing conservative movement within the party.  This nomination, in a way, showed that the balance was beginning to tip in favor of a new direction for the party. But it would not happen this year.

Reagan made a few blunders. First, he announced that he would select a moderate vice president, which angered his base. Secondly, he tried to force Ford to do the same, with the hopes that he’d anger his base as well. Ford refused, and the convention voted down Reagan’s motion to make him do so. Reagan’s momentum going into the convention faltered as the voting began. Ford, who had the lead going in, confirmed his lead among the delegates and went on to lose his renomination against Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter.




One Comment Add yours

  1. Hazel hill says:

    No room for contested conventions let the people speak donald trump has won the nomination


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s