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National political party conventions have been the scene of some of the most dramatic moments in U.S. electoral history and have often changed the course of that history. These weeklong gatherings, held in the summer months every four years, enable delegates of the major political parties to meet and officially nominate their candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency and adopt a statement of principles. Despite this rich history, various circumstances fostering a more egalitarian nominating process and the explosion of instantaneous modern media coverage of events have rendered modern national party conventions less relevant than those of the past.
Early in the nation’s history, the congressional leaders of political parties met in party caucuses to select presidential candidates. These meetings were sometimes held in secret. In the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson (1767– 1845) won 43.9 percent of the popular vote, but because no candidate had received the requisite number of electoral votes to win the presidency, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives as directed by the Constitution. Thanks to some adroit political dealing, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who had won just over 30 percent of the popular vote, was elected president. Supporters of Jackson decried King Caucus and accused Congress of ignoring the will of the people. Presidential nominating caucusing disappeared after the 1824 election in favor of national nominating conventions. The first such convention was held by a single-issue party, the AntiMason Party, at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1831. Other than being the first party to hold a national convention and running a candidate who won seven electoral votes in the election, the Anti-Mason Party faded from the scene after its significant historical contribution. The Democratic and Whig Parties held national conventions in 1832, and the Republican Party did so in 1854 after replacing the defunct Whigs as a national party.
Ideally national conventions were to be a transparently democratic nominating setting. This was hardly the case, however. Delegates to party conventions were almost always selected by and/or under the control of the party boss, or individual who had risen to power via enormous networks of support or through less-than-ethical methods. In the late nineteenth century, New York state politics were controlled by Senator Thomas Platt (1833–1910). His dislike of, and inability to control, New York governor Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) led Platt to demand enough delegates to the 1898 Republican Convention to nominate Governor Roosevelt for the vicepresidency, in effect removing him from office in New York. Although Roosevelt was eventually elected vice president and Platt and his colleagues congratulated themselves on their successful tactics, the plan backfired when President William McKinley (1843–1901) was assassinated, and Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901.
Often, party conventions presented previously unknown individuals to head presidential tickets. These no-names resulted from deadlocked ballots and political dealing and intrigue behind closed doors. In 1844, the Democratic Convention nominated James K. Polk (1795–1849) after nine ballots. Polk was not even mentioned on the first seven of those ballots, but was seen as an acceptable compromise and, finally, the nominee. Polk won the general election. Similarly Franklin Pierce (1804–1869) was not even a candidate entering the 1852 Democratic Convention, but became the nominee and won the presidency. Intrigue became absurdity when, during the 1924 Democratic Convention, John W. Davis (1873–1955) emerged as the nominee after 103 ballots, a drama that was closely followed by Americans across the land via a new technological development called the radio.
One traditional function of national party conventions is the debate over, and eventual adoption of, a party platform. The platform is a statement of party principles and the purported foundation upon which the party’s candidates will conduct their campaigns, and upon which the party stands for the subsequent four years. The proposals approved by the delegates and the stated goals are called planks. Platforms are now often ignored both by the candidates and the public at large, though they were much more useful in outlining a party’s views for the public before the evolution of mass media. Platform committees construct a platform document for delegate approval. At times, planks relating to difficult issues such as abortion have divided delegates, but not enough to make a significant mark during a convention. More often than not, platform planks are not even proposed as policy, yet the adoption of a platform remains an integral part of national conventions.
Although conventions gave at least the appearance of a more open selection process, the 1912 Republican Convention was an early example of an increasing demand for the formation of a primary election system to determine delegate support and party nominees. Theodore Roosevelt, troubled by policies he viewed as overly conservative on the part of his successor, President William Howard Taft (1857–1930), decided to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. Roosevelt campaigned in states holding presidential primaries, and swamped Taft everywhere, including the incumbent’s home state of Ohio. Taft, however, still controlled enough delegates to carry him to victory at the convention and was the party nominee despite Roosevelt’s electoral strength. Roosevelt and his supporters (who chanted Thou shalt not steal! after Taft was nominated) fled to form a third party, and took enough Republican support away from Taft to help make Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), the Democratic nominee, the next president. No such drama has occurred at modern conventions. The last nomination in doubt during a national convention was the 1976 Republican Convention, in which former California governor Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) nearly toppled incumbent President Gerald Ford (1913–2006). History was made at the 1984 Democratic National Convention when the party nominated the first female candidate for the vice-presidency, Geraldine Ferraro (b. 1935), though her selection was not a surprise before the convention convened.
Conventions and the Primary System
Since 1936, every successful presidential candidate has been nominated by his party convention on the first ballot. The advent of television and live coverage of conventions by the major networks, however, did capture some of the traditions of old. Conventions in the 1950s and early 1960s retained the spectacle of the delegates choosing the ticket, and often the presidential nominee would throw the choice of his running mate to the convention floor. At the 1956 Democratic Convention, Adlai Stevenson (1900–1965) let the delegates choose and a dramatic race ensued between Senator Estes Kefauver (1903–1963) and Senator John F. Kennedy (1917–1963). Kennedy lost, but the nation watched as he delivered a graceful concession speech that many believed propelled him as a favorite for the 1960 nomination, which he eventually won. Even in 1960, though, Kennedy had to fend off a convention-week challenge from Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), who did not participate in primaries as Kennedy had. Johnson was eventually the vice-presidential nominee.
Demand for a national primary system for choosing presidential nominees reached its peak at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916–2005) of Minnesota had won much primary support for his stances against the Vietnam War and the increasingly unpopular incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson, who declined to run for reelection, favored his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978), who controlled the delegates and won the nomination. Humphrey’s nomination and his alliance with Chicago mayor and political boss Richard J. Daley (1902–1976), whose Chicago police forcefully repelled antiwar demonstrations throughout the convention—all of it seen on live television across the country—led to the formation of a committee that revamped the nominating process of the Democratic Party in favor of primary elections preceding the national convention. The Republican Party followed suit.
The Democratic and Republican parties, of course, differ in how each allocates delegates to the national convention. Democrats divide delegates according to how each state voted in the previous three elections; party leaders and certain elected officials hold 15 percent of the total number of delegates. Republicans assign delegates who are already pledged to vote for a certain candidate in proportion to the votes the candidates received in the primaries. The primary election season begins in January of the election year, usually with the New Hampshire primaries and Iowa caucuses (in which voters gather in schools, homes, and community centers to debate and vote), and continues in many other states until June. Most of the primary votes are cast before April, and the nominations of each party are not in doubt by the time the last primaries are held.
While the primary system is a more democratic method for selecting a presidential nominee in that it places the selection in the hands of voters rather than convention delegates, it has relegated the nomination function of the national convention to mere formality. Reliance upon the primary system to find a party’s presidential nominee has meant that presidential campaigns now begin two and sometimes three years ahead of the date of the election, and candidates are obliged to raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions to remain competitive in such a long process. The amount of money that changes hands during a presidential election has led many lawmakers and commentators to call for more legislation governing the influence of campaign contributions on candidates and officeholders. However, few—if any—in either major party have suggested a return to the convention as the sole nomination process. Thus conventions have taken on a role of showcasing important members of the national party, writing and adopting a party platform, and presenting the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, who give acceptance speeches that attempt to persuade the voting public to support their campaigns.
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