Monday is the first day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Milwaukee. And while most of the convention is now virtual, it’s a historic start to the 2020 political conventions: It’s the first to be held during a pandemic, and the first time a presumptive party nominee will be an impeached president.
The role of political conventions in modern America is a tradition that may not hold much influence now since we hold primary elections. Until 1831, presidential nominees were essentially made by party members in what was called a “king caucus.”
So do conventions still matter?
"This really was the place where ... the decisions were made about who the candidate would be and very often also, very importantly, who the vice presidential candidate would be," notes Kenneth Davis, author of the Don’t Know Much About History series. "Now it’s pretty much pro forma. These candidates have all been selected through the primary process. So we may be seeing the end of the convention as we know it, especially in the midst of this pandemic."
Davis looks back on several key political convention moments in U.S. history:
1831 Anti-Masonic Convention
For much of the early history of the American presidency, there were no conventions. Party members decided nominees. The first convention came about because of a third party: the Anti-Masonic Party.
"It was an early form of people wanting democracy," notes Davis. "They wanted to give more of a voice to the people ... [The Anti-Masons] was a group of men who believed that the Masons, Masonry, was a dangerous conspiracy against America."
This idea of a convention was later picked up by the other key parties of that time — the Democrats and the Whig Party, which would later be followed by the Republican Party.
1912 Republican Party Convention
The Republican Party was divided sharply in 1912 between the sitting incumbent President William Howard Taft and President Theodore Roosevelt, who left the presidency but choose to run again four years later. The convention was split but still nominated Taft, leading Roosevelt to form the Progressive Party, also known as "The Bull Moose Party."
In what was the most successful third-party campaign, Roosevelt finished second to Taft and ended up "throwing the whole election into chaos," according to Davis.
"When you look at the states that had gone Republican in the previous two elections that went to Wilson, it was because Taft and Roosevelt clearly split the Republican vote in 1912. If one or the other of them had dropped out of the race, you can make a good case that Wilson would not have won the election," he explains.
1932 Democratic Convention
Note: Franklin Roosevelt addresses the convention at the 2:30 mark.
"I count this as among the most significant of modern political conventions," says Davis.
As the Great Depression worsened, Democrats were hopeful that they could end the GOP's long hold on the White House. But it wasn't just what Americans were going through that made this convention historic — its nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first candidate to address the convention and accept the nomination in person.
"The idea of going around the country and campaigned was seen as somehow ungentlemanly and it wasn't done," notes Davis. "But that was all going to change, as so many things were changing because of the advent of mass media."
Roosevelt's New Deal acceptance speech was heard by millions of Americans over the radio, also changing the role of conventions in American politics as radio coverage later evolved into "gavel to gavel" coverage on network television by the 1960s.
1968 Democratic Convention
Television would play a huge role in the 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago, Ill. That's mostly because of what was happening outside of the hall — anti-war protesters clashing with police.
"It was against this backdrop of the [Vietnam] War going bad, Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal, the assassinations of [Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy] that the Democrats go to Chicago," notes Davis. "And they're going to go in the midst of a major anti-war demonstration that became a full-scale riot — a riot which later on was determined was really set in motion by the police."
Davis notes that by 1976, the shift to primary elections became more significant in signaling which candidates would be successful, as well as the state caucuses. Conventions would take on different importance, more-so for their keynote speakers rather than deciding a party nominee.
"Clearly by 2008, the primary has taken precedence over the convention and its increasingly just seen as this celebratory moment — a moment to bring the party together behind the candidate to try and get some sense of unity and put on a great big show that gets everybody excited to get out and campaign," says Davis.
Now, with the 2020 DNC having a nearly all virtual platform, Davis is skeptical whether conventions will ever hold as much significance as they once did at their prime.
"This I think, in many ways, really feels like the last hurrah for the nominating convention as we knew it in the past," he says.