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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
A determined campaign can break such taboos, to be sure. After the great General Grant himself failed to secure a third-term nomination in 1880, it was assumed that the no-third-term “tradition” had the force of law—until Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully defied it in 1940, and added a flourish by winning a fourth time in 1944. John F. Kennedy was determined to erase the impression, deepened by Al Smith’s failure at the polls in 1928, that it was fatal to nominate a Catholic, and he succeeded in 1960.
Everything considered, as the delegates stream into the hall for the opening ceremonies, they generally are aware that their choice lies among fewer than five men who have been working hard and expensively for a long time to convince them that they can win a majority of the votes in a nationwide test. The members of this select handful are very likely to be white Protestant males in their fifties who have been governors or members of Congress from one of the heavily populated states—and nowadays they are also likely to be well-to-do, if not rich. The “people’s choice” is already rather circumscribed.
Nor will the convention make an entirely uninfluenced selection. The state organization leaders who command the delegations usually can get them to vote as directed. Most delegates are local politicians, beholden to the state boss in one way or another. If the choice is not actually made in the famous “smokefilled room” described by Warren G. Harding’s promoter in 1920, it is nevertheless generally the result of furious negotiation and calculation by a fairly limited number of state machine leaders (sometimes identical with the captains of the biggest big-city machine in the state). They are the men whom the candidates’ managers must see, and they can almost always “deliver” the great majority of their delegates. Now and then a convention may appear to be stampeded. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan took the speaker’s rostrum at the Democratic convention to defend a proposed platform plank in favor of the free coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to i with gold. His sonorous oration, ending with the cry: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” was followed by a bedlam of applause and cheers, and was popularly supposed to have brought him the nomination two days later. In point of fact, the pro-silver men who dominated the proceedings had few other choices. In 1940, the roars of “We Want Willkie!” from the galleries of the Republican convention in Philadelphia may have confounded the professionals and put the Indiana-born lawyer, businessman, and ex-Democrat over the top, after a relatively brief publicity build-up. But in general, when the chairman of a delegation seizes the microphone and booms to the world the fact that the glo-o-orious state of Such-andSuch is switching its X number of votes from Statesman A to Leader B, he can count on his delegates following along without much argument if they know what is good for them.
Such being the case, then—that in fact the nominees are usually chosen from a limited list by hard bargaining among their spokesmen and state organization leaders—is there any meaning to the oratorical and musical orgies of the convention—the parades, bands, balloons, demonstrations, badges, pins, banners, handouts, and hoopla? Actually, there is a good deal. The nomination could hardly be achieved if it were necessary to get a majority of a thousand delegates drawn from fifty states to agree on one likely vote-getter from an unlimited list. Chaos would ensue. And the mummery does allow battles within the party to take place publicly, but inside a stylized framework of unity that allows for the reconciliation after’ it is all over. Only rarely have conventions really broken apart from internal dissension, as did the Democrats in 1860, or the Republicans in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt’s followers, balked in efforts to nominate “Teddy,” fled into the short-lived Bull Moose party and delivered the election to the Democrats. The normal thing is for the urban liberal and the rural fundamentalist, the tariff advocate and the labor leader, the Catholic and the Protestant, the Negro spokesman and the white supremacist, to strike their attitudes and leave the managers to work out the necessary compromises in private meeting. After antagonisms have been formally recognized, vented, and exorcised, the party will actually go before the country with a candidate and a platform representing many classes, sections, and interests. Thus the convention is an enactment, in a theatrical setting, of the constant process of adjustment and conciliation among diverse pressure groups that is at the heart of the American political system.