Lessons of History

Convention Surprises

October 2017

Presidential conventions at which no candidate won on the first ballot have produced some of our best Presidents including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Three U.S President didn’t win a single vote on the first try at their convention.

There has been much talk in recent months about the possibility of a contested Presidential nominating convention. But commentators seem to be quite unaware that candidates have often not been decided until later ballots -- sometimes with happy results. Twelve of the Presidential conventions convened over the years by major parties failed to produce a winner on the first ballot. For example, only 22% of the delegates voted for Abraham Lincoln on the first ballot at the Republican convention in 1860. Lincoln eventually won because supporters of William Seward and Salmon Chase adamantly refused to vote for their rival, while delegates who had supported nine other candidates eventually coalesced around Lincoln as the compromise.

In three Presidential elections, the winning candidate hadn't even received a single vote on the first ballot of his party’s convention. James K. Polk received no votes on the first ballot at the 1844 Democratic convention, but started to attract interest as balloting progressed and finally went over the top on the 9th ballot -- becoming the first “dark horse” candidate. As President, Polk added Texas, California, and the Southwest to the United States, a territory the size of Western Europe, and historians generally give him high marks.

At the 1880 Republican Convention, six different candidates received votes on the first ballot. But not a single delegate voted at first for the eventual nominee, the respected Congressman and Civil War hero James Garfield, who was finally nominated on the 39th ballot as another “dark horse.” Garfield became one of our better Presidents, enacting major reforms during his 200-day administration until it was tragically cut short by the assassin Charles Guiteau. Benjamin Harrison, the eventual Republican nominee in 1888, didn’t even get 10% of the votes on the first ballot. It took him eight attempts to pass John Sherman, James Blaine, and other candidates who were better known than Harrison.

The top record for indecision by a major party was set by the 1924 Democratic convention, which struggled through 103 ballots before it compromised on John W. Davis, who eventually lost to Calvin Coolidge. Franklin Roosevelt was a favorite going into the 1932 convention for the Democratic nomination to run against President Herbert Hoover, but he definitely wasn't a shoe-in. The three major contenders for the nomination that year represented competing factions of the party. Former New York governor Al Smith had strong backing in his state and in Chicago. John Nance Garner had firm support in the party as Speaker of the House. While from our vantage point in the present day, Franklin D. Roosevelt towers over the other politicians of his era. But it took him four ballots to finally pass the magic number of 770 votes at his first convention.

The pundits have often described these conventions with the derogatory term “brokered,” and in fact the final outcome often was the result of backroom deals. But it’s perfectly legitimate for delegates to consider the possibilities before them and reach a consensus, especially when conventions face an impasse among stubborn candidates and their firmly committed supporters. They are simply fulfilling their duty to reach a resolution.

Frederick Sumner, the presiding officer of the very first Presidential nominating convention in 1832, hoped that their gathering would be a model for future elections. As he said in his opening remarks, “The object of the representatives of the people” is “not to impose on the people” a candidate, but “to concentrate the opinion of all the states.”