Paper: Conventions Then & Now

This is a short paper I wrote in my Presidential Primaries, Nominations, & Elections class. It briefly describes the Republican nominating convention from 1860, and the Democratic nominating convention from 2000, and compares them.

The 1860 Republican Convention

The 1860 Republican Convention overflowed with drama and intrigue. The leader was clearly William Seward, Republican Senator from New York. But before the nominating began, they had work! The Proceedings have pages upon pages of chaos: motions, counter-motions, requests to speak up, and invitations to events from sundry organizations in Chicago.

The first serious drama of the convention came, not in electing the President, but in seating the delegates. Delegates had appeared from the slave states and the Credentials Committee awarded them fewer relative votes than the northern (free) states, justifying the measure by pointing out that the Republican Party was weak in these areas. Delegates had also arrived from Texas, and Mr. Wilmot of Pennsylvania questioned how they had been credentialed, as the Texas Republican Party was unknown to him.  A debate ensued, but in the end the Texas delegation was seated. These matters and other convention business took the first day.

After the second day was devoted to the party platform, the nomination fight began on day 3. While Seward was widely expected to win, behind the scenes there was a fight on. Chicago’s mayor filled the convention’s public galleries with Lincoln supporters using counterfeited tickets. On the first ballot, Seward led with 173.5 votes (of 233 needed) against Lincoln’s 102, with sundry others trailing farther behind. After the first ballot, a number of delegations switched to Lincoln — partly due to promising delegates cabinet appointments — after it became clear their “favored son” candidate would not take the nomination. The second ballot was Seward 184, Lincoln 181.5 The third ballot ended with Lincoln at 231.5 votes, but some last-minute wrangling led Ohio to switch 4 votes from Seward to Lincoln, and the nomination was made.

The 2000 Democratic Convention

The 2000 Democratic Convention was a primetime event. Party work went on, but the important pieces were the pre-scheduled speeches. On Monday, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Bill Bradley (beaten in the primaries), and keynoter Representative Harold Ford, Jr. On Wednesday, Joe Lieberman (Vice Presidential candidate-in-waiting) and Karenna Gore Schiff, Al Gore’s daughter. On Thursday, Al Gore in his acceptance speech and Tipper Gore, his wife.

Drama was almost non-existent in this convention. Delegates and speakers had microphones so they could be heard. Everyone knew that Al Gore would be the nominee; Bill Bradley — his only real opponent — had been badly beaten in the primaries and freed his delegates the day before the convention, telling them to vote for Al Gore.


The two conventions outlined above could not have been more different. The 1860 Republican Convention existed for the purpose of deciding on and nominating a Presidential candidate. The outcome at the beginning was unknown, and while there was a widely-expected outcome it was not realized. The 2000 Democratic Convention existed to highlight the strengths of Al Gore and the Democratic Party. His nomination was assured, as was that of his running mate. In the Republican convention votes were sometimes based on matters such as whether delegates had enough money to stay more than 3 days. The final vote was narrowly won and turned on promises of patronage to a few influential individuals. The Democratic convention nominated Al Gore unanimously and Joe Lieberman by voice vote.

These changes over time strongly illustrate themes in our course reading. The changes in the conventions are largely a product of the shift to primaries and large-scale caucuses as the main means to certify delegates and win votes, rather than delegates being selected at local and state levels by the party organization and then being won by on-site speeches or patronage.  This results in a known outcome, and the known outcome reduces the effect of backroom dealings and shifts the focus from selecting a nominee to promoting him. This change in focus causes the pre-arranged speeches, carefully selected to unify and promote the party and its nominee: witness the defeated opponent speaking in support of his former rival, party lions lining up to endorse him in the 2000 Democratic Convention, and new faces to inspire, rather than the spontaneous arguments about how many votes should be had by whom present in the 1860 Republican Convention. There is a heavy dose of irony in noting that the increasingly democratic nomination process results in a convention run by dictatorship.


“1860 Republican Convention.” Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail. The State of Georgia and the Georgia Historic High Country Travel Association. Accessed 9/22/08.

“2000 Democratic National Convention.” The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Accessed 9/22/08.

Proceedings of the Republican National Convention, held at Chicago, May 16, 17, and 18, 1860. Digitized by the Internet Archive for Microsoft, from the University of California at Los Angeles. Accessed 9/22/08.

“The Democratic National Convention.” Accessed 9/22/08.