What Is a Contested Convention? Here Are 4 Examples From Presidential Election History - HISTORY

History Stories

For all the pomp and circumstance that once surrounded presidential party conventions, they’re rarely all that dramatic today. In fact, the last time Democrats faced a tight delegate race was in 1980, when Jimmy Carter narrowly edged out Ted Kennedy for the nomination, avoiding a contested convention. And for Republicans, 1976 was the most recent time there was a delegate nail-biter, when Ronald Reagan made a surge—but eventually lost to—Gerald Ford, the incumbent president.

The first Democratic presidential convention dates back to 1832, when Andrew Jackson was named the party’s nominee. The first Republican convention took place in 1856, with Senator John Fremont earning the party nomination (he went on to lose to James Buchanan).

A contested convention takes place when the state primaries and caucuses don’t result in a single candidate earning a majority of delegate votes before the convention. When there’s no clear nominee on the first ballot, that’s when the stuff of political legend—smoky closed-door wheeling and dealing, dark horse candidates brought in—would begin. But no convention has gone past the first ballot since 1952, and by the 1970s, state caucuses and primaries became the norm for both parties, typically resulting in one candidate securing enough delegates to assure the party’s straight-forward nomination at the convention.

History has shown that having a single candidate by the time of the convention is a key stepping stone for a party’s victory. Candidates who win their party’s nomination after multiple ballots at a convention rarely go on to win the presidency, as a survey from the Pew Research Center shows. Here’s a look at four of the most contentious contested conventions in American history.

Democratic National Convention, 1860

Democratic National Convention, 1860

The Democratic Convention in session at Charleston, South Carolina, April 23, 1860. This convention was a critical event which led to the start of the American Civil War. 

With slavery dividing the nation, the 1860 Democratic National Convention, held in Charleston, South Carolina saw its members torn in two, and ended with a walk-out from Southern delegates.

A few months later, Southern Democrats met and nominated John C. Breckenridge, a Kentucky Congressman who served as vice president to James Buchanan and believed in secession. Northern Democrats cast their votes for Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, known for the Lincoln-Douglas debates and his sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave those two states sovereignty in deciding whether to allow slavery.

They faced eventual Republican nominee—and election winner—Abraham Lincoln. The one-term Representative from Illinois secured his party nomination on the third ballot and, in addition to the two split-Democrat candidates, he faced a fourth candidate, Tennessean John Bell, former speaker of the House, who ran on the Constitutional Union Party ticket.

Democratic National Convention, 1924

Democratic National Convention, 1924

When Andrew C. Erwin of Georgia arose to address the Democratic Convention at the sixth session, he condemned the Ku Klux Klan and his remarks were drowned in salvos of cheers and applause.

During what was perhaps the most famous contested convention in U.S. history, and certainly the longest, West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis finally secured the party’s nomination after 103 ballots were cast over 17 days in New York.

“On the second day of that debacle, antagonisms had already reached the point where the 13,000 gallery spectators were spitting on the delegates, who were screaming, jeering and waving their fists at one another,” the New York Times reported. “By the time Mr. Davis was nominated, more than 100 delegates had already packed up and gone home, having run out of money, patience, or energy.”

Davis was a dark horse introduced as a compromise after neither New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, an anti-Prohibitionist, or William G. McAdoo, who had the support of the Ku Klux Klan, could wrangle a then-necessary two-thirds majority.

Davis lost the general election resoundingly to Republican President Calvin Coolidge.

Republican National Convention, 1964

Republican National Convention, 1964

Ku Klux Klan members supporting Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, San Francisco, California, as an African American man pushes signs back.

In a clash of Republican conservatives vs. moderates, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the former, had managed to fend off New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the latter, during primary season. But the senator was still shy of the total delegates needed to clearly clinch the party’s nomination at the San Francisco-held convention on the first ballot.

With support from former President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as failed candidate Rockefeller, a last-minute bid from Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton threw a wrench in Goldwater’s plan to secure the nomination.

Just a month before the convention, Goldwater was one of six Republicans to vote against the Civil Rights Act. A “Stop Goldwater” movement ensued, with moderates throwing their support to Scranton and massive anti-Goldwater protests taking place outside the convention hall.

“The 40,000-person demonstration in San Francisco was the largest protest since the March on Washington,” author and political correspondent John Dickerson writes in Slate. “Signs read, ‘Goldwater for Fuhrer, Freedom Is Dead, Hitler Was Sincere, Too. ‘Goldwater in ’64: Bread and water in ’65; hot water in ’66,’ ‘Vote for Barry, stamp out peace,’ ‘I’d rather have scurvy than Barry–Barry.’ ”

But while he may not have held the popular vote, he held the delegates’ votes and Goldwater ended up wresting the nomination from Scranton with a vote of 883 to 214. He went on to lose the national election to Lyndon Johnson in one of the largest defeats in presidential history.

Democratic National Convention, 1968

WATCH: 1968 Riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago

Facing a strong challenger in Robert F. Kennedy and continuing Vietnam War protests, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would drop out of the presidential race and not seek reelection. Combined with a year filled with civil unrest and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy soon after, the stage was set for a contentious Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Following Kennedy’s death, anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota faced Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had entered the race following Johnson’s withdrawal, and followed Johnson’s platform on the war. Humphrey, who didn’t participate in any primary races, was given Johnson’s pledged delegates, while Kennedy’s delegates were divided between McCarthy and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

READ MORE: 1968 Democratic Convention

Humphrey clinched the nomination on the first ballot, more than doubling the vote over second-place contender McCarthy, but “... the delegates and spectators paid less attention to the proceedings than to television and radio reports of widespread violence in the streets of Chicago, and to stringent security measures within the International Amphitheatre,” according to an Aug. 30, 1968, report in the New York Times.

Outside the convention hall, an estimated 10,000 protesters took to the streets, and a national TV audience watched as anti-war demonstrators clashed with 12,000 Chicago police officers, plus Army forces, members of the Illinois National Guard and Secret Service agents. 

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

RELATED CONTENT