Political Conventions


convention, in U.S. politics, a gathering of delegates to nominate candidates for elective office and to formulate party policy. They are held at the national, state, and local levels.

Organization and Characteristic Features

The organization of a national convention is the responsibility of the party's national committee, which begins making arrangements for the accommodation of hundreds of delegates and the administration of the convention at least a year in advance. Delegates have been chosen by a variety of methods, including primary elections, party caucuses, state and local conventions, or state and local committee meetings, but the majority are now chosen by primaries. Although the two parties follow the same basic pattern of basing representation on the population of the state and the party's strength within the state, the Democratic party introduced a series of reforms after the 1968 convention that modified its traditional delegate selection system. Quotas, assuring proportional representation for women, youths, and blacks, were used for the 1972 convention but later modified in favor of a general commitment to gender equality and minority representation. Balloting at both the Republican and Democratic conventions is by states. The unit rule, forcing all of a state's votes to be cast by the majority for one candidate, was abolished by the Democrats in 1968; it had been in effect since 1832. Although today the acceptance speech of the nominee is the recognized climax of the convention, it was not until Franklin Delano Roosevelt flew to Chicago to accept the Democratic nomination in 1932 that a nominee accepted the nomination in person.


State conventions for nominating candidates were first held in the early 19th cent. The first national convention was held by the Anti-Masonic party in Baltimore in 1831. Formerly the candidates for president and vice president were selected by a party caucus, i.e. a meeting of influential members of Congress, and they favored their colleagues. In 1832 the Democrats nominated Andrew Jackson at a national convention. The Republican party held its first national convention in 1856, when John Frémont was chosen as the presidential candidate.

Candidates were often selected only after many ballots had been taken. This was especially true of the Democratic party, which, until 1936, had required successful nominees to win two thirds of the delegates' votes. Thus, Stephen Douglas was nominated on the 59th ballot in 1860, Woodrow Wilson on the 46th ballot in 1912, and John W. Davis on the 103d ballot in 1924. The difficulty of gaining agreement on a candidate at conventions led to a unique feature of the American political scene: the dark horse—a candidate with little or no formal support before the opening of the convention, who succeeded in gaining the nomination. Since 1960, however, national conventions have tended to ratify front-runner candidates increasingly determined by delegates won in primaries and state caucuses, rather than select from among evenly matched rivals. National political conventions have thus changed from their initial function as nominating mechanisms into mobilizers of party energy for the upcoming campaign.


See P. T. David et al., The Politics of National Party Conventions (rev. ed. 1984); Congressional Quarterly, Guide to U.S. Elections (2d ed. 1985); B. E. Shafer, Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention (1988).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Political Conventions: Selected full-text books and articles

Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part One By Davies, Philip John Contemporary Review, Vol. 276, No. 1608, January 2000
Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part Two By Davies, Philip John Contemporary Review, Vol. 276, No. 1609, February 2000
Does Organization Matter? A Critical-Case Analysis from Recent Presidential Nomination Politics By Trish, Barbara Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Party's Choice By William R. Keech; Donald R. Matthews Brookings Institution, 1976
Librarian's tip: Chap. Six "The Convention's Decision"
The Life of the Parties: Activists in Presidential Politics By Ronald B. Rapoport; Alan I. Abramowitz; John McGlennon University of Kentucky Press, 1986
Do Primary Voters Draw from a Stacked Deck? Presidential Nominations in an Era of Candidate-Centered Campaigns By Steger, Wayne P Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 4, December 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Hats in the Ring By Malcolm Moos; Stephen Hess Random House, 1960
Presidential Nominating Politics in 1952 By Paul T. David The Johns Hopkins Press, vol.1, 1954
Political Conventions, Images, and Spin By Hoffmann, Gregg ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 62, No. 1, January 2005
'A Snarling Roughhouse:' the Democratic Convention of 1924 By Ranson, Edward History Today, Vol. 44, No. 7, July 1994
Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us By Roderick P. Hart Princeton University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: "Political Conventions" begins on p. 104
We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era By Robert C. Smith; Ronald W. Walters State University of New York Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "The National Black Political Convention, 1972-84"
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