Darryl Paulson: Conventions have been disrupted by credentials, rules, platforms

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(Second of three parts)

Political parties have held conventions in America since 1824. Many aspects of the convention have changed little in almost two centuries.

This year, because the Summer Olympics are being held in August, both major parties will conduct their convention in July, with Republicans going first in Cleveland and Democrats following in Philadelphia.

The first televised convention took place in 1940 when New York City’s NBC affiliate broadcast the Republican convention in Philadelphia. The other major networks quickly joined in and provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. As John Chancellor of NBC noted in 1972, “convention coverage is the most important thing we do. The conventions are not just political theater, but really serious stuff.”

That attitude changed by 2004, when all the major networks cut back their coverage to several hours at night. As early as 1996, the networks were complaining that little of substance takes place. Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s Nightline, announced in 1996 that he was going home because the Republican Convention “is more of an infomercial than a news event.”

What changed? It is true that many of the conventions of the 1940s through the 1970s made for great television. Platform fights were common, sometimes leading to a walkout of delegates. Just as explosive were fights over rules changes and the city of delegates.

What made for good television, made for bad election results for the parties. They did not want to project an image of a divided party to the American electorate. Both parties instituted rules that made conventions less dramatic. The party image improved, but television now found conventions bland.

During the first two days of the convention, the delegates decide on credentials, rules and the party platform. The credentials process determines the seating of state delegations and resolves any challenges to their legitimacy.

The major credentials challenge in modern political history took place at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Two delegations from Mississippi both claimed to be the legitimate one.

One delegation was the traditional, all-white Democratic delegation. No blacks were members or even allowed to participate in the selection of delegates. The other delegation came from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was open to both whites and blacks.

The MFDP argued that its members should be seated because the party was open to all races, supported the party platform and backed the election of Lyndon Johnson. Many in the all-white delegation opposed the platform and its civil rights plank, and many supported Republican Barry Goldwater for president.

Johnson selected his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to negotiate a solution. Humphrey’s solution was to seat the all-white delegation and several members of the MFDP. At all future Democratic conventions, race couldn’t be a factor in selecting delegates. Like most compromises, neither side was pleased.

Platforms have often produced divided conventions. At the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, the delegates narrowly approved a stronger civil rights plank introduced by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. Southern Democrats walked out and met several weeks later in Alabama and selected South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to lead the Dixiecrats.

Democrats feared that the split would cause Harry Truman to lose to Republican New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, but Truman won by a slim margin.

The 1964 Republican platform led to a split between the moderate and conservative wings of the party. When the Goldwater forces defeated a moderate civil-rights plank by a 2-1 margin, it was clear that the Republican Party had moved to the right.

Disputes over party rules have also led to disastrous conventions. In 1968, there were only 15 party primaries for the Democrats. Party committees or party leaders chose most delegates. The party leaders selected Humphrey and not the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.

In response to the 1968 fiasco in Chicago, the Democrats formed the McGovern-Fraser Committee to revise convention rules. The committee recommended that in the future, most delegates must be selected in primaries or caucuses, and that the delegates had to mirror the population of the state they represented.

McGovern would be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. Some found it more than coincidental that the person who wrote the rules changes became the next nominee.

Many Democrats considered McGovern too radical to win, and “ABM” committees (Anybody but McGovern) sprang up to oppose him.

His opponents tried to stop McGovern by denying him all of California’s delegates that he won in a winner-take-all primary. The effort failed, but in retaliation, McGovern forces challenged Mayor Richard Daley‘s Chicago delegation as not meeting the diversity requirements. Daley and the other 58 members of the Chicago delegation were thrown out of the convention and replaced by a diverse slate elected by no one.

For probably the first time in his life, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Royko supported Daley. Royko said the new delegates contained only one Italian and three Poles. “Your reforms,” wrote Royko, “have disenfranchised Chicago’s white ethnic Democrats, which is a strange reform.”

After McGovern lost 49 of the 50 states to Richard Nixon, the Democrats were back in the reform mode. This time, they created over 700 “super-delegates” who were party officials and elected Democrats who would be guaranteed seats at the convention and help to select the most “winnable” Democrat.

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination because she has the overwhelming support of super-delegates, look for Democrats to once again reform their rules. Republicans would never do that. They are still following the rules their grandparents made.

(Tomorrow: Donald Trump needs 498 more delegates to avoid contested convention.)

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Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg. He can be reached at darryl.paulson@gmail.com.

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