Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!
—John Quincy Adams—
So what would you make of the following scenario?
In a highly charged election year, the Republican Party faces a showdown at its impending national convention. The field of presidential contenders has been large, and no single candidate will come to the convention with a majority of the delegates behind him. Candidate A of New York is the clear front runner, and for months his rank-and-file supporters have considered him the presumptive nominee. But Republican elites are lukewarm about A. His reputation as an extremist gives them pause, and despite the enthusiasm of A’s followers, they worry that A will fare poorly in the general election. They fear that A is unelectable, and by nominating him they will not only sacrifice any chance at the presidency but harm Republican candidates for state and federal offices as well. The future of the party hangs in the balance.
As the opposition to A becomes ever more outspoken, a “Stop A” movement works frantically behind the scenes to rally behind a single alternative. The number of potential nominees makes this difficult, however, and the divisions within the “Stop A” movement look to be crippling. Candidate B is a southern conservative with tenuous links to party leaders. Candidate C is an economic and social conservative who has risen to prominence in the Senate but made too many enemies along the way. Candidate D is a northeasterner with a following in his own state but viewed elsewhere as a corrupt opportunist. Candidate E has none of these liabilities, but as the convention approaches this Midwesterner is the first choice of only one state: his own.
Although candidate A commands a sizable plurality of delegates when the convention opens, candidate E’s campaign team goes to the convention determined to deny A a first-ballot nomination and open the door for E. Unabashedly pragmatic, their message to delegate after delegate emphasizes expediency. E is electable. A is not. E lacks A’s negative baggage and is widely respected. He is a unifier who has been careful not to denigrate the other candidates. E’s promoters encourage A’s delegates to consider E as a good second choice if it becomes clear that A cannot win a majority on the convention floor. Where it promises to be helpful, E’s team makes thinly veiled offers of future political favors to delegations willing to switch their support to E after the initial ballot. A significant number of wavering delegates are even willing to shift their allegiance before the balloting begins.
In the end, the strategy works. On the first ballot, A takes 37% of the vote to E’s 22% (with candidates B, C, and D trailing even farther behind). But as delegates are released from their first-ballot pledge to support A, the momentum shifts decidedly toward E on the second ballot, and by the third ballot E claims the nomination over A. E’s margin of victory? A razor-thin 50.5% to 49.5 percent.
So how would you evaluate the outcome of this contested convention? Was it a miscarriage of justice? An assault on democracy? A “brokered” behind-the-scenes deal that bartered the wishes of the people? Or was it a politically prudent compromise that secured the best outcome realistically available?
If you say that you don’t have enough information to answer the question, you would be right. But in thinking through the scenario, it might be helpful to know that it isn’t hypothetical. It’s my best attempt to summarize the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Candidates A, B, C, and D were Republicans William Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and Simon Cameron. We don’t know how this year’s Republican slugfest will play out, of course, but so far I’d say there are some pretty striking similarities to the 1860 Republican contest. And although Donald Trump has modestly proclaimed that he is as “presidential” as Abraham Lincoln, right now the person best approximating that role is probably John Kasich.
So what does this analogy prove? Can it help us to predict how the race for the Republican nomination will come out? Can it teach us how it should come out?
Absolutely not. The point of listening to the past is not to get easy answers to contemporary problems. I cringe whenever I hear someone in the public opining ponderously about what “history proves.” We study the past not as a storehouse of simple lessons but as an aid to thinking more deeply, more self-consciously, and hopefully more wisely as we meet the future. History promotes wisdom, when it does, by expanding the range of our experiences to draw from. As C. S. Lewis put it figuratively in “Learning in Wartime,” the student of history has lived in many times and places, and that greater breadth of perspective aids us as we seek to think wisely and live faithfully in our own historical moment.
I suspect that much of the popular hyperventilating about the prospect of a contested Republican convention stems from the fact that the last multi-ballot nomination of a major-party candidate came in 1952, before the vast majority of Americans were born. And because we have no memory from before we were born—only people with historical knowledge can have that—we are vulnerable to all kinds of nonsense from those who would prey on our ignorance.
The reality is that the presidential primary model that we take for granted today has been dominant for less than a half century. The earliest presidential candidates were chosen without any popular involvement at all, hand-picked by party caucuses in Congress. Beginning in the 1830s (following the lead of a bizarre coalition known as the Anti-Masonic Party), the major parties established the pattern of choosing candidates in party conventions. And although some states began to hold presidential primaries as early as 1912, as late as the 1950s conventions still effectively made the final decision, and it was possible for a presidential candidate like Adlai Stevenson to win the nomination without running in a single state primary.
And unlike the conventions of the last half century—which are carefully choreographed, excruciatingly boring infomercials—the conventions between the 1830s and the 1950s were frequently contested. It wasn’t just Abraham Lincoln who was nominated after multiple ballots.
Future president James K. Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot at the Democratic Convention in 1844. In 1848 future Whig president Zachary Taylor was nominated on the fourth ballot. Future Democratic president Franklin Pierce was nominated on the forty-ninth ballot in 1852 (and received no votes at all for the first thirty-five ballots). Among other future presidents, James Buchanan was nominated on the seventeenth ballot in 1856, Rutherford Hayes on the seventh ballot in 1876, James Garfield on the thirty-sixth ballot in 1880, Benjamin Harrison on the eighth ballot in 1888, Woodrow Wilson on the forty-sixth ballot in 1912, and Warren G. Harding on the 10th ballot in 1920. And although he lost in the general election, Democrat John W. Davis outdid them all, claiming his party’s nomination in 1924 on ballot number one hundred and three!
There was much that was broken about this system of selecting nominees. Political bargains in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” were the norm, and I’m not recommending that we return to them. But these examples should give us pause and lead us to wrestle with some questions that might not otherwise occur to us about the current Republican contest. Why, for one, would we assume that a candidate with a plurality of popular support has earned his party’s nomination? Is it wrong to take “electability” into question in selecting a nominee? Why do we think that a contested nominating convention is automatically disastrous for the party in question? I have thoughts about all of these, but I’ll stop here and invite you to share what you think.