On 16 July 1940, the delegates to the Democratic Convention meeting in Chicago heard the voice of God. During the months leading up to the convention, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt had not clearly indicated whether he would break the two-term precedent set by George Washington and seek a third term. As a result, the Democrats were muddled in uncertainty, debating the qualities of other candidates and worrying about the political impact of a divided convention. On the second day of the convention, a message from Roosevelt was read to the delegates, stating that he would not seek the nomination. But as the crowd sat in disappointed silence, a booming voice filled the convention hall: "We want Roosevelt. The world wants Roosevelt." Delegates quickly picked up the chant and soon the phrase echoed through the entire arena. Two days later, convention delegates voted overwhelmingly to draft Roosevelt to represent the party in the November elections. And on 5 November, he was elected to a third term.
Believe it or not, it wasn't God speaking to the delegates gathered in Chicago—it was Chicago's Superintendent of Sewers, Thomas Garry. Sitting in the convention hall basement with a microphone linked to the hall speakers, he waited for the right moment to start his chant. But whether from God or Garry, the heavens or the sewers, it made little difference to the course of the convention. A divisive battle was avoided and the Democrats were able to rally behind a consensus choice.
The drama of the 1940 Democratic convention belongs to another time in the history of America's political parties—a time when nominating conventions were dynamic and crucial events in the political process, a time when the party's nominee was actually chosen by the convention delegates. Today, conventions seem like little more than staged events, opportunities for the parties to demonstrate their unity and coronate their nominee. Delegates still attend, but they have little meaningful role; instead they appear interested only embarrassing their children by wearing outfits they would never wear back home.
So why have they changed? Why have conventions gone from dynamic, decision-making political events to political theater, from vital parts of the democratic process to political anachronisms?
In a word, primaries. In the early twentieth century, reformers, labeled Progressives, resolved to open the political process to the electorate. Complaining that party nominees were too often chosen behind closed doors by a just a handful of party leaders, these reformers introduced the primary as a more authentically democratic way to choose party representatives. Usually held in the spring before the summer conventions and November general elections, primaries were state elections in which party members cast ballots for the person they wanted to represent their party in the November election.
The first state to adopt the primary was Wisconsin, in 1905. By 1920, about half of the states had followed Wisconsin's lead. But over the next 50 years, low voter turnout, high election costs, and party leaders anxious to reclaim the decision-making power encouraged many states to abandon their primaries. By 1968, less than one-third of all states held primaries. But during the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, reformers once again demanded that the political process be opened up and the result was a revival of the primary. Today, almost all of the states hold primaries. A few still use caucuses—local meetings in which party member debate and then vote on which candidate they want their delegates to the convention to support. But although differently formatted, these caucuses are still democratic processes open to all party members.
The widespread use of primaries and caucuses has resulted in party nominees being determined before the conventions actually convene during the summer. In the early stages of the primary season, the two or three most viable candidates are culled from the long list of contenders, and by late spring, one has usually secured the necessary number of delegates. In the unlikely event that a single candidate has not sewn up the nomination, the Democratic Party has taken additional steps to avoid a contentious, divided convention: Superdelegates. States are awarded Superdelegates based on the state party's effectiveness in delivering their votes in the preceding presidential election. These Superdelegates are free to vote for whomever they want. But a clear priority among these Superdelegates has been party unity; consequently, they have tended to vote for the frontrunner to secure or strengthen his majority. Such was the case in 1984, when Walter Mondale was 40 votes short of the nomination. The threat of a divided convention was quickly ended by the Superdelegates who gave Mondale the majority he needed.
In short, the changing role of conventions is largely a reflection of the increasing democratization of the nomination process. In more states, more party members participate directly in the actual selection of the party nominee. The goal of opening up the process, as envisioned by Progressive reformers in the early 20th century, has been accomplished.
It's true that we are now left with curious political rituals every four years: pageants filled with endless speeches, balloon orgies, and ridiculous hats. But the real drama has been taken from the convention hall to the campaign trail—where it should be in a democracy.