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A Final Look at the Conventions
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, Sept. 1, 2000

Question: I'm one of your readers in Europe who is always looking forward to your "Political Junkie" column. In your Aug. 11 column you answered a question about delegate votes at the Republican convention that went to Alan Keyes (six) and John McCain (one). Which states did McCain and Keyes get their delegates from? Was the vote at the Democratic convention unanimous for Al Gore, or were some votes cast for Bill Bradley? Finally, was there also a vice-presidential roll call for Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman? -- Kees van den Berg, Sliedrecht, The Netherlands

Answer: Keyes received the votes of five delegates from Arkansas and one from Minnesota. McCain’s lone delegate was from Massachusetts.

At the Democratic convention, the vote was indeed unanimous for Gore, but there were reports of some tense moments. One Bradley delegate from Vermont vowed he would vote for the former New Jersey senator but ultimately did not. At least one California delegate said despite the pressure to present a unanimous vote for Gore, he voted for Bradley. But Democratic officials said that because Bradley’s name was not placed in nomination, the vote wouldn’t count. And several Alaska delegates insisted they would not vote for Gore because of environmental concerns, but a hastily arranged meeting with the vice president helped change their minds. So after all was said and done, the vote was unanimous, but more in result than in spirit.

Both Cheney and Lieberman were nominated by acclamation, without a state-by-state roll call of delegates.

Question: It appears that the 1980 Democratic convention was the last real convention of substance. There, delegates voted on a key measure that would have allowed delegates bound to Jimmy Carter by primary votes to be free to vote for the candidate of their choice. Theoretically, that meant the late-charging Sen. Teddy Kennedy. It was narrowly defeated in a heated debate. I still find it humorous that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which pushed through the post-1968 reforms, was trying to say delegates are not bound by the voters’ wishes.

That was also the year of the "co-presidency" convention on the Republican side, when Ronald Reagan was dangling the vice presidency to Gerald Ford. A moment of drama and interesting discussion at that convention. Do you agree with this assessment? Will the 2004 conventions be two days long and only on cable? -- Dennis McCulloch, Kansas City, Mo.

Both conventions in 1980 were exciting, with a Kennedy- sponsored rules change shaking up the Dems and a near "dream ticket" for the GOP. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
Answer: You are absolutely, and regrettably, correct. Conventions aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when someone like Adlai Stevenson could walk into a convention as a non-candidate (as he did at the 1952 Democratic gathering) and leave as the nominee. All the great intrigue of the past has been replaced by suspenseless conventions and, to no great surprise, declining television viewership. News organizations for years have been debating the wisdom of spending a ton of money to cover nominating conventions that no longer decide whom the nominees will be. Even the naming of a running mate, which was long a thrilling moment (especially at the 1980 GOP convention, as you point out), is now but just another decision signed and sealed before the convention opens.

But that doesn’t mean there is no drama. We may no longer have speakers being booed off the stage (see San Francisco, Republican, 1964) or police arresting delegates on the floor (see Chicago, Democrat, 1968), but every now and then the unexpected happens: The stunning 1980 appearance of Ronald Reagan in Detroit to announce he had chosen George Bush as his running mate. The breathtaking sound of Barbara Jordan giving the keynote address in New York in 1976. The tears of joy among female delegates when Geraldine Ferraro stepped up to the podium at the 1984 convention in San Francisco. The jolting language employed by Patrick Buchanan during his "cultural war" speech in Houston in 1992. The moments are there, just not as frequent.

Of course, we did witness drama and conflict at one convention this year -– the Reform Party convention in Long Beach. Delegates stormed out of one setting and reconvened a block away, amid cries of "traitor" and "thievery." It reminded some of the Democrats in 1860, who held two conventions that year amid a calamitous split over slavery. Or the Republican conventions of 1912 and 1952, where cries of "stolen delegates" permeated the air. We political junkies love that stuff. But the parties don’t, and that’s why they no longer happen. Remember, no presidential candidate ever lost an election because his convention was too dull.

Anyway, I’m with you: I think the future is two-day conventions. On a deserted island in which the last remaining inhabitant is the nominee. That may be the only way the TV networks will cover them. Until then, stick with cable. Or, better yet, National Public Radio.

(Editor’s note: Ken Rudin is the political editor at National Public Radio.)

Question: When was the last presidential convention wherein the candidate did not have enough votes for nomination when the convention began? And who were the candidates seeking that nomination? -- Jo Hunter, Kansas City, Mo.
Reagan took a gamble and lost by picking Sen. Schweiker for V.P. in '76. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: With a system that has evolved into 50 presidential primaries and caucuses over the past quarter-century, conventions have gone from deciding the nominees to merely ratifying the tallies of the party voters. And as the big states have begun a rush to hold their contests earlier than ever, the nominees have been named earlier than ever as well (witness this year’s de facto coronations of both Gore and Bush on March 7).

But in 1976, Republicans went into their convention still unsure of the identity of their nominee. President Gerald Ford and former California governor Ronald Reagan battled each other down to the wire. Ford held perhaps a 60-delegate lead going into the party gathering in Kansas City but was still a dozen or so votes short of clinching the nomination outright. The key to the nomination lay in undecided delegates from Mississippi and Pennsylvania.

John Sears, Reagan’s campaign manager, made a daring and fateful decision that he hoped would end the deadlock: He convinced Reagan to name Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a liberal, as his running mate. The Reagan camp gambled that by naming Schweiker to the ticket, they could wrest some undecided Pennsylvania delegates to their side, clinching the nomination. What happened was the reverse: A handful of undecideds went for Ford, feeling that Reagan sold out conservatives with the Schweiker pick. One key undecided delegate was Clarke Reed, the Mississippi GOP leader thought to be a closet Reagan backer, who endorsed Ford –- a crucial move that all but sealed Reagan’s fate and gave Ford the nomination.

Question: At the 1952 and 1956 Democratic conventions in Chicago, how many ballots were required to nominate the presidential and vice presidential nominees? -- Jim Herbst, Kirkwood, Mo.

Answer: The 1952 Democratic convention was the last presidential nominating convention that went beyond the first ballot. The names of 11 candidates were placed in nomination, notably Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), whose victory in the New Hampshire primary essentially forced President Harry Truman out of the contest. Other hopefuls included Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, New York businessman Averell Harriman, and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a self-proclaimed non-candidate who was nonetheless the favorite of many party leaders.

Kefauver led after the first ballot, with Stevenson 67 votes behind. After two ballots Kefauver gained in strength, but so did Stevenson, and now he was within 38 votes of the Kefauver. Both Harriman and Gov. Paul Dever, Massachusetts’ favorite son, then withdrew and endorsed Stevenson. By the third ballot, the Stevenson steamroller could not be stopped.

In 1956 Stevenson once again was chosen as the Democratic nominee (this time, on the first ballot). But he left the decision on naming his running mate to the delegates, and they took three ballots before deciding on Kefauver. Also-rans during that contest included Sens. Hubert Humphrey (Minn.), John F. Kennedy (Mass.) and Albert Gore Sr. (Tenn.), as well as New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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