Brief History of Contested Democratic Conventions

by Jonathan Hobratsch

After having written A Brief History of Contested Republican Conventions, I’ve decided to do the same with the Democratic conventions, which were often longer. Since much is being said about a contested Republican convention in 2016, it is interesting to look back on history to see how this years convention could turn out. 

1844 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland

Ballots: 9

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Pres. Martin Van Buren

Ultimate nominee: Fmr Gov. James K. Polk

The fight for the nomination looked to be between former one-term president Martin Van Buren of New York and former ambassador Lewis Cass of Michigan, a vocal supporter of American expansionism.

Martin Van Buren, who had been arguably the architect of the Democratic Party, still maintained influence in the party, despite having been defeated in a landslide in reelection. However, the old Jacksonian Van Buren had evolved, while his party did not. He was becoming increasingly anti-slavery and he opposed measures that would help increase the power of the Slave States. As such, the once national candidate, became regional. The South would not support him.

Lewis Cass was a powerful freemason with a range of experience. Besides having been ambassador to France, he was, like Jackson and Harrison, a War of 1812 general, and he had been territorial governor of Michigan. While a Northerner, like Van Buren, Cass had much in common with Jackson-minded Southerners and Westerners.

The sole potential alternative, or compromise, on the first ballot was Van Buren’s old VP, Richard Mentor Johnson, a controversial fellow, whose common law wife was a slave. He acknowledged their children as his own. He was also considered a somewhat incoherent speaker and wore the same bright red vest every day. However, he was a War of 1812 hero, who claimed to have killed the great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.

At the convention, in an effort to block Van Buren’s nomination, Southerners worked with powerful Pennsylvania Senator, and future president, James Buchanan to establish a 2/3 rule for selecting a nominee. With approximately 67% of the votes needed to win, a contested ballot requiring a compromise choice became much more likely. In this way, the South could regularly veto any candidate against their interests and force someone more tolerant to slavery. The 2/3 rule lasted until FDR asked for its removal in the 1930s.

On the first ballot, as expected, Van Buren led in votes, but he did not secure 2/3 of them. Cass was in a strong second and Johnson held the lead among minority candidates. Strangely, incumbent president John Tyler, who had been kicked out of his own Whig Party, had hoped to receive votes at this convention, but he failed to gain a vote.

Van Buren led through four ballots and then Cass took over for the next four. Johnson fell as the alternative, while James Buchanan rose to third place. On the 8th ballot, Buchanan and Johnson delegates united around former governor James K. Polk of Tennessee as a the compromise.

Polk, like Andrew Jackson, was from Tennessee. He was a favorite of Andrew Jackson. Additionally, he was a slaveholder, who was quiet about the expansion of slavery. At the convention, Polk was fighting merely for a VP spot, and he supported Van Buren over Cass for the presidency.

Polk’s 8th ballot showing, where he placed 3rd, was convincing enough for Van Buren to bow out and for most of Cass’s delegates to over to the new candidate. Polk won on the 9th ballot.

1852 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland

Ballots: 49

Leader on the first ballot: Sen. Lewis Cass

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Franklin Pierce

On convention day, the two strongest candidates were the 1848 nominee, Lewis Cass, and powerful Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, who had last served as Polk’s Secretary of State. The nomination took place as the country was working on a compromise to prevent Civil War. Cass, who was from Michigan, was the favored candidate among the Northern Democrats. Buchanan, although a Northern as well, was the favorite among the South, since his closest friend was Sen. Rufus King of Alabama. Cass’s supporters were more inclined to compromise than Buchanan’s were.

Cass lead for 19 ballots, with a gradual decrease in votes, after which Buchanan held the lead through the 29th ballot. Neither candidate was capable of achieving 2/3 of the vote to win. As such, delegates scrambled for compromise choices.

The first alternate was Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who held the railroad interests and western expansionist support, much of Cass’s earlier support headed his way. He lead on ballots 30 and 31, before many of his voters went back to Cass.

Cass regained the lead on ballot 32 and kept it through ballot 44, when a new compromise choice, former Sec. of War William Marcy of New York, emerged as the frontrunner. Marcy kept his lead from ballot 45 through 48. However, as a pro-Southerner New Yorker, some from his own state worked to block his nomination.

By the end of ballot 48, the convention was ready to go home. Marcy couldn’t get his whole homestate’s support, and Cass, who was in second place, would not get a third look. The convention turned to a new, non-threatening, compromise choice who currently was in 3rd place: Sen. Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.

Pierce did not receive any votes until the 35th ballot and did not receive any serious consideration until ballot 44, when some of Cass’s supporters went his way. Like Buchanan and Marcy, Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies. He was acceptable to Cass and was made acceptable to Buchanan’s faction by accepting Sen. William Rufus King of Alabama as his VP. Additionally, he selected Marcy as his Secretary of State.

Pierce would become one of the worst presidents in US History.

1856 Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio

Ballots: 17

Leader on the first ballot: Amb. James Buchanan

Ultimate nominee: Amb. James Buchanan

This convention fight was between those wishing to renominate President Franklin Pierce, and those opposed to his renomination. Pierce had proved to be a weak president in a period of crisis. Democrats opposed to Pierce offered the same old candidates from past conventions, Ambassador James Buchanan, Sen. Stephan A. Douglas and former nominee Lewis Cass. All three were considered experienced, able and acceptable to both Northern and Southern Democrats.

President Pierce’s best showing was on the first ballot, when he came in second place. After this ballot, Pierce’s number dwindled considerably until he was abandoned after the 14th ballot.

Out of the non-Pierce candidates, Lewis Cass never gained any serious attention. While Stephen Douglas jumped to second place when Pierce’s former supporters rallied around Douglas. Buchanan, meanwhile, held on to his lead the entire time. By the 16th ballot, Buchanan’s only competitor, Douglas, was unable to reach Buchanan. Unwilling to prolong the convention needlessly, Douglas endorsed the frontrunner Buchanan.

Buchanan, a Northerner, would agree to Southern Democrat of Kentucky John C. Breckinridge, who was then only 35 years old, as his vice president. He also selected Lewis Cass as his Secretary of State to appease Western voters.

James Buchanan presidency is generally considered worse than Franklin Pierce’s.

1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina

Ballots: 57

Leader on the first ballot: Sen. Stephen A. Douglas

Ultimate nominee: Sen. Stephen A. Douglas

The crucial mistake was hosting the convention to promote a unionist in South Carolina while the country was on the brink of Civil War.  Senator Stephen A. Douglas, now a three-time candidate for the nomination, would hold the lead for the entire balloting process, but win his 2/3 majority on account of a protest.

While Douglas had defended slavery during the famous debates with Abraham Lincoln, his strong unionist beliefs and his promotion of Popular Sovereignty, which made him a moderate for the 1850s, irked hard-line Southerners. He also opposed the controversial Dred Scott decision. With James Buchanan opting out of a second term (he wouldn’t have been renominated), Douglas had the support of the North. Although, he did not have President Buchanan’s support.

Five alternate candidates competed against Douglas, most notably James Guthrie of Kentucky, future president Andrew Johnson of Tennessee and Sen. Robert Hunter of Virginia. Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis received token votes. None of these candidates came within the shadow of Douglas when votes were counted.

The Southern delegation protested a Douglas nomination and stormed out of the convention, along with much of spectators. The chairman ruled that Douglas would need to get 2/3 of the vote, counting the non-votes of the absent Southerners. As this proved to be impossible after 57 ballots, Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland, where Douglas was easily nominated.

Southern Democrats decided to break free of the “Northern” Democratic Party and selected their own candidate, Buchanan’s VP, John C.Breckinridge. The split in the Democratic Party allowed Republican Abraham Lincoln to win a landslide victory, despite his absence from Southern ballots.

1868 Democratic National Convention in New York, NY

Ballots: 22

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Rep. George Pendleton

Ultimate nominee: Fmr Gov. Horatio Seymour

A realist within the Democratic Party would realize that their party hadn’t a chance in 1868. Much of their Southern support wasn’t allowed to vote because of Reconstruction. Additionally, the incumbent president, Democrat Andrew Johnson, was showing the country how ineffective a fight against a Republican-controlled Congress could be. Republicans were identified with Lincoln, and Democrats were still seen as the party of secession. Nevertheless, they were the other major party, so they must convene.

President Johnson attempted renomination, but it was clear he would not get it. He received the second most votes on the first ballot. After this, his support slid until he was virtually abandoned on the eighth ballot. He had tried to win support by portraying himself as the victim of an abusive Congress, but this didn’t really inspire the delegates.

The lead alternative was George Pendleton of Ohio. He had been the Democratic VP nominee in 1864, and he held the support of agrarian voters in the Midwest because of his support of inflationary currency, which helped poor farmers. Unfortunately, this economic stance lost him support among urban and big business interests within the party. Pendleton was the frontrunner on the first 15 ballots.

The 2/3 rule, once again, would require a compromise choice. On ballot 16, some of Pendleton’s supporters moved to Civil War hero Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was popular and moderate enough to win crossover votes in the general election, but he was politically inexperienced.

Pendleton dropped out on the 18th ballot with his support going to both Hancock and to a new compromise choice, the respectable by unexciting Senator of Indiana, Thomas A. Hendricks. Hancock maintained the lead until after ballot 21, when Hendricks took over.

At this point, Ohio delegates, who had supported Pendleton, nominated the chairman of the convention, Horatio Seymour of New York for the nomination. Seymour suggested Ohio-born Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, a former disgruntled Republican, as a Compromise. However, the convention rallied around Seymour, who had earlier refused to be a candidate. With homefield applause from the spectators, Seymour accepted nomination.

Seymour would lose to Ulysses S. Grant in the election, but he would perform better than expected.

1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 5

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Rep. Richard P. Bland

Ultimate nominee: Fmr. Rep. William Jennings Bryan

Incumbent president Grover Cleveland, the leader of the conservative, pro-Business and gold Democrats declined to run for a 3rd-term. It seems he could have probably won a 3rd term, despite the opposition of Western, agrarian and silver Democrats. However, with a deep recession and general election victory seemed unlikely, so he bowed out before the convention met.

The absence of Cleveland allowed the silver Democrats a chance to take control of the party. Bimetalism was a major political issue at the time. The gold standard was favored by big business in the east and in this cities, and silver-backed currency helped Western farmers. Agrarian populism had been rising throughout the 1890s, and the Democratic Party hoped to capitalize on it by endorsing a candidate that could appeal to Democratic, Republican and 3rd party silverites.

Heading into the convention, the Silver Democrats had control of exactly 2/3 of the delegates, which meant that they would get their nominee. The question was over which silver candidate. The front runner was Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri. Having co-authored the Bland-Allison Act, which put silver into American currency, Bland was the obvious choice for the nomination. However, Bland wasn’t interested in the office and stayed away from the convention.

Bland’s only real competition was 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan, a well-known orator on bimetallism, who espoused a quasi-Christianity-based progressive platform. Bryan, unlike Bland, wanted the job. He delivered the famous “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold” speech, directed at those in favor of the gold standard, Democrat or Republican. With that, the Silver vote abandoned Bland for Bryan. Additionally, Southerners who didn’t like Bland for marrying a Catholic woman, accepted Bryan as well. Gold Democrats unwilling to cross over, stayed with Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Pattison. Bryan won on the 5th ballot.

Bryan would lose to Republican William McKinley in the first of three presidential general election defeats for Bryan.

1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland

Ballots: 46

Leader on the first ballot: Speaker of the House Champ Clark

Ultimate nominee: Gov. Woodrow Wilson

By 1912, the Democrats were without a general election victory for two decades. Three attempts by progressive-leader William Jennings Bryan and one by conservative, gold Democrat Alton B. Parker failed to take down the powerful Republican Party. The party was still fragmented between the interests of pro-business, conservative, progressive, agrarian and labor. Bryan and Parker were at the complete opposite ends of each other, ideologically, without much overlap. In 1912, Democrats hoped to find a more unifying candidate.

Four major candidates were nominated: Rep. Champ Clark of Missouri, Gov. Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, Gov. Judson Harmon of Ohio and Rep. Oscar Underwood of Alabama. Neither Bryan nor Parker campaigned for the presidency.

As this was the first election with primaries, candidates came into the convention with some delegates, but none had the 2/3 majority. Clark held a lead over Wilson. While Harmon and Underwood were in a distant 3rd and 4th place.

Clark held his lead until the 30th ballot, coming close to winning on ballot 10. Meanwhile, Wilson’s numbers slowly improved, while Underwood’s stayed the same, and Harmon’s tailed off.

Wilson, who had been one of the conservative, pro-business Democrats in the past that were opposed to Bryan’s progressive wing, realized he had to be a reformist to win the election. In the primaries, he painted himself as both a Southern-born progressive and a Northern governor opposed to the moneyed interests of Wall Street. He also knew that he had to win over Bryan at the convention.

At the 30th ballot, Bryan endorsed Wilson, after Clark accepted the support of the New York delegation. To Bryan, this delegation was tied to Wall Street money. Bryan’s endorsement saved Wilson, who was on the verge of dropping out. Wilson won on the 46th ballot.

For his support, Bryan was made Wilson’s Secretary of State, a position he would resign in protest to Wilson’s apparent eagerness to get involved in World War I.

1920 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California

Ballots: 44

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr. Sec. William Gibbs McAdoo

Ultimate nominee: Gov. James Cox

Stroke-ridden president Woodrow Wilson officially declined a 3rd term, but he hoped to be renominated in a prolonged convention. This became obvious when he declined to endorse his own son-in-law, frontrunner William McAdoo, or anyone else.

Four major candidates fought for 2/3 of the vote. Ballot leader McAdoo was a pro-labor, prohibitionist. The runner up, was the nationalistic Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s current Attorney General. Labor forces opposed him for his role in breaking up worker’s strikes and for leading the “Palmer Raids” against radical leftists. In a distant 3rd place, was Gov. James Cox of Ohio. Gov. Al Smith of New York, the first major Catholic candidate, was in fourth place. Several minor candidates received votes as well.

McAdoo maintained the top spot through 9 ballots. Some argue that Wilson made efforts to block a McAdoo nomination. By ballot ten, Smith had dropped out, and the convention was close to a three-way tie between McAdoo, Palmer and Cox, with Cox now in the lead. McAdoo took the lead again in the next ballot, but then lost it to Cox until the 30th ballot when he gained the lead back.

By ballot 31, Mitchell had been fading into a distant 3rd place. Conservative Democrat John W. Davis of West Virginia was rising as an alternate, but he couldn’t rise past 3rd place. Most of Mitchell’s supporters backed Cox on the 39th ballot, giving the Ohio governor the lead once again. On the 44th ballot, many of McAdoo’s supporters switched to Cox, giving him the victory.

Cox selected the relatively inexperienced Franklin D. Roosevelt of NY as his VP. The pre-polio Roosevelt was 38 and seen as a rising star in the party. More importantly, the Democrats knew they needed to win New York in the election. The Cox/Roosevelt ticket lost in one of America’s greatest landslides to Warren G. Harding, one of our worst presidents.

1924 Democratic National Convention in New York, New York

Ballots: 103

Leader on the first ballot: Fmr Sec. William Gibbs McAdoo

Ultimate nominee: Amb. John W. Davis

This was the longest convention in US history. It was also one of the most futile, as the winning candidate had little chance of beating incumbent Republican president Calvin Coolidge. After years of progressive candidates, both parties would opt for conservatives. Some mark this as the end of the Great Progressive Era.

Once again, the pro-labor, prohibitionist candidate, William McAdoo was the frontrunner. Without his meddling father-in-law, McAdoo had a better chance at the nomination. Gov. Al Smith of New York, a Catholic, was favored by North-easterners, urban voters, Catholic communities, anti-prohibitionists and supporters of civil rights, also believed his chances had increased since 1920. Last election’s nominee, James Cox was in a distant third place.

In this age of conservatism, the KKK had reemerged as negative force in American society. It’s influence was such that many delegates were members. Naturally, the Klan opposed Smith, a Catholic and advocate of civil rights. Eventually, a slight majority of the convention were able to force the Klan out for disrupting the convention. The Klan and their delegates crossed over to New Jersey to burn crosses and scare people.

The Klan’s dark influence prevented Smith from getting 2/3 of the vote, but it also harmed McAdoo, who they supported by default. McAdoo did not disavow the Klan and this likely harmed his candidacy.

At the 15th ballot, McAdoo still lead Smith, but Ambassador John W. Davis, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia emerged into 3rd place. By the 20th ballot, McAdoo’s lead was slipping, so he was willing to get rid of the 2/3 majority rule, but his supporters blocked the suggestion, as they needed it to prevent Smith from having a shot at victory should the next ballot go against them. Meanwhile, Davis was now in a strong 3rd place.

By ballot 30, long-time Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan, with McAdoo’s support, attempted to close the convention to reconvene in another city, after New Yorkers supporting Smith pushed their way into the convention, causing a lot of noise and pushing delegates. Yet, the convention went on.

Smith nearly caught up to McAdoo, until ballot 42, when Davis’s support tumbled. McAdoo seemed closed to victory. But then Smith began to rise again. By ballot 70, the delegates were determined to look elsewhere and Davis was once again in a strong 3rd place. By the 87th ballot, Smith had finally overtaken McAdoo for first place.

At this point, anti-Catholic forces opted to back the rising Davis, and with the support of many former McAdoo backers, Davis jumped to second place by the 100th ballot. After this, Smith and McAdoo dropped out of the race, which gave Davis the victory on ballot 103.

The conservative John W. Davis accepted Charles W. Bryan, brother of progressive leader William Jennings Bryan, as his VP. Davis would get crushed by Coolidge in the general election.

1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 3

Leader on the first ballot: Sen. Estes Kefauver

Ultimate nominee: Gov. Adlai Stevenson

This was the first contested convention since Roosevelt removed the 2/3 rule. Without the rule, and especially with primaries, nominations would typically take only a single ballot, unless there was a near tie, as was the case in 1952.

In 1952, unpopular incumbent Democratic president Harry S. Truman declined to run for another term. Four major candidates stood at the convention: Sen. Estes Kefauver, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, Sen. Richard Russell, Jr., and Former Sec. Averell Harriman.

The frontrunner, Kefauver, something of a Southern liberal populist, won the primaries states, but he wasn’t trusted by the establishment. The runner up, Stevenson, a moderate and intellectual, was favored by the establishment, but had not entered into any primary states. Russell was the favored candidate of Southerners and segregationists. Harriman, gifted in foreign affairs, who was in fourth place, was President Truman’s choice.

Kefauver kept a slight lead through the first two ballots, but then Harriman dropped out, with his support going to Stevenson. Some of Kefauver’s backers also switched to Stevenson. To balance the ticket, Stevenson, ignored selected Kefauver for VP, and took Truman’s advice to select John Sparkman of Alabama, a Southern segregationist.

Stevenson would get mauled by Eisenhower in the general election in both 1952 and in 1956.

1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois

Ballots: 1

Ultimate nominee: Hubert Humphrey

Most of the chaos occurred before this convention. Incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the party by dropping out of the race soon after the primaries began. Johnson’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, entered the race as the heir of Johnson, but he did attempt to campaign in the primary states, but rather, met with select individuals who had all the influence.

Meanwhile, two anti-Johnson, anti-war candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president, did enter the primaries, mostly splitting the states among themselves. Kennedy won the crucial state of California and had his eyes on Illinois, but he was killed moments after giving his victory speech in California. Thus, McCarthy picked up Illinois and entered the convention hoping to beat Humphrey with popular support.

However, McCarthy needed all of Kennedy’s supporters. While most of them did move on to McCarthy, some supported George McGovern or others. Some tried to convince Sen. Ted Kennedy to win at convention. In the end, the voice of the people were silenced by the establishment. Humphrey, who did not aim to win any votes, except delegates, easily won on the first ballot.

Humphrey would lose to Richard Nixon in the general election. Humphrey’s nomination victory inspired Sen. George McGovern to head a commission to create election reform. Under this reform, every state was forced to have a primary or caucus, so that the people’s choice couldn’t be easily thwarted again. Curiously, under his new rules in 1972, McGovern easily won the nomination, while Humphrey, still trying to operate under the old rules of 1968, would fail.
















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