navigation bar U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany About the USA Sitemap Search

Elections 2004 Logo

Memorable Moments in Political Convention History:
The Evolution of National Party Conventions

(Election Focus, July 14, 2004) pdf

Since their beginnings in the early nineteenth century, election-year conventions have been the occasion for political parties to nominate their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, formulate their positions on the issues into a “platform,” and elect national committees to run the
parties. In earlier times, when last-minute compromises were made in “smoke-filled rooms,” real surprises could emerge from conventions.

Today, according to Nelson Polsby, a distinguished political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, “National party conventions…ratify what’s already been done in the process well before the convention. The role of the convention now is entirely advertising for the nominee and the party.” Broad media coverage, though somewhat reduced in recent years, provides an ideal vehicle for each party to present its candidates and platform to the nation, and both parties will use the opportunity to energize their voters in the run-up to Election Day in November.

Political party conventions are a rich part of American political culture. Here are some interesting facts about their history.

The First National Party Convention

The Anti-Masonic Party held the first national party convention in 1831 in Baltimore, Maryland. It nominated William Wirt as its presidential candidate and Amos Ellmaker as its vice-presidential candidate. The other parties soon emulated the Anti- Masons in using conventions to nominate their presidential candidates. The Democratic Party, known as Republican Delegates from Several
States, held its first convention in Baltimore in 1832 and re-nominated President Andrew Jackson. All the states, except Missouri, sent delegates to the convention for the purpose of choosing a vice-presidential candidate. The re-nomination of Jackson was taken for granted. The National Republicans also held their convention in Baltimore in 1832 and they nominated Henry Clay.

Television Campaigns and Conventions

Televised debates among the major candidates running for the presidency of the United States have been a key factor influencing public opinion in presidential races for decades. The airtime for the conventions and the debates is provided free of charge by the television networks as a public service. The first political convention to be televised was the Republican National Convention in June 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when Wendell L. Willkie was nominated for president. The telecast was made by station W2XBS of the National Broadcasting Company, located in New York City. The first color telecast was the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida in August 1968; both NBC and the Columbia Broadcasting System broadcast the proceedings. The first televised campaign spots in a presidential campaign were aired in 1952. In a series of commercials, Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for president, answered questions from average citizens. These spots were titled "Eisenhower Answers America" and featured dramatic footage of "the Man from Abilene" interacting with voters. (Eisenhower was from Abilene, Kansas.)

Chicago, 1968

Probably the most disruptive national convention was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Illinois. The event was a public relations disaster for the Democratic Party, which was shaken by a series of shattering events that year. The bitter anti-Vietnam protests, the withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson from the 1968 presidential race, the assassinations off Reverend Martin Luther KingJr. in April, and of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) in June on the night of his California primary victory formed the backdrop to the Chicago convention. Outside the hall, thousands of anti-war protestors clashed with police. Inside, tempers exploded over issues as diverse as the selection
of VicePresident Hubert Humphrey as presidential nominee (he had not entered a single presidential primary), and the vocal demands of supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy (DMinn.), the anti-Vietnam war candidate. The McCarthyites’ loud complaints generated sympathy among several delegations. Ironically, the anti-Vietnam War protest movement was partially responsible for the rapid increase in the percentage of first-time participants at national conventions. In 1972, for example, 83 percent of the Democratic delegates and 76 percent of the Republican delegates were attending their first convention that year.

Women and Minorities

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first woman presidential candidate. The National Radical Reformers, a group that seceded from the National Woman Suffrage Association, nominated her at a convention held in May 1872 at Apollo Hall, New York City. Ten years later, at the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Sara Andrews Spencer made a speech against the disfranchisement of women. She was the first woman to address a national political convention. Charlotte A. Bass was the first and only African American woman nominated to be vice-president. She was nominated by the Progressive Party at its convention in the International Amphitheatre in Chicago in 1952. New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to run for the presidency at the 1972 Democratic nominating convention in Miami, Florida. She assembled 151 delegate votes on the first ballot. Later, in 1988 and 1992 Dr. Leonora B. Fulani was the first woman and first African American to appear on the presidential ballot in all 50 states as a National Alliance Party candidate. She qualified for two million dollars in Federal matching funds. The first and only female vice-presidential candidate from a major political party was Geraldine Ferraro, who was chosen by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984.

Frederick Douglass was the first African American at a national convention (National Loyalists' Loyal Union Convention, Philadelphia, September 1866) nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. Douglass was also the first African American to be nominated for president when he received one vote at the 1888 Republican National Convention. The first national political convention to propose African Americans for the offices of president and vice-president was at the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968. The Reverend Channing Emery Phillips of Washington, D.C. received 67.5 of the 2,622 votes cast for the presidential nomination.

Same City Conventions

The first time that the major parties held their nominating conventions in the same city occurred in 1832 when the Democrats and the National Republicans (soon to be Whigs) held theeir conventions in Baltimore. Baltimore was also the location in 1844 for the Whigs (later the Republicans) and the Democrats. Since 1948, both parties have had their conventions in the same city only three times: Philadelphia (1948), Chicago (1952), and Miami Beach (1972). Since then, the practice has been that each party chooses a different city. For the 2004 elections, the Democrats will hold their convention in July in Boston, one month before the Republicans meet in New York City. However, the most popular convention city is Chicago, which has hosted twenty-five national conventions (1860-1868, 1880-1896, 1904-1920, 1932, 1940-1944, 1952-1960, 1968, and 1996).