A brokered convention is a political party's nominating convention at which a candidate is chosen based on bargaining, deal-making, and the casting of multiple ballots. Brokered conventions are unlikely events in the modern era, as candidates are chosen in a long series of state primaries which precede the actual convention.
In the 19th century candidates did tend to be chosen during political conventions. And some political conventions were notable for having numerous ballots and unexpected outcomes, which could include the nomination of a dark horse candidate.
The brokered conventions of the 1840s and 1850s could be epic affairs. And a look at the early history of political conventions reveals just how frustrating it could be at times for a political party to find an acceptable candidate.
Early History of Nominating Candidates
In the earliest years of the nation, the presidential candidates came from a very small pool and tended to be nearly obvious choices. And in the first two decades of the 19th century, presidential candidates were usually selected by a caucus of members of Congress who held similar views.
By the 1820s the nominating process had evolved to being a mixture of votes by state legislatures, state conventions, and, again, caucuses of congressmen.
Political Conventions Became Established in the 1830s
In the early 1830s America saw its first national political conventions. The process of state delegations gathering to nominate candidates became standard procedure.
The nominating conventions held in the 1830s nominated candidates but tended to be unsurprising affairs. For instance, in December 1831 the National Republican Party (which would later evolve into the Whig Party) held a convention in Baltimore which unanimously nominated Henry Clay, who lost to Andrew Jackson in the election of 1832.
In 1836 the Democrats convened and nominated Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice president, on the first ballot. That year the Whigs didn't hold a unified convention and somehow ran three regional candidates for president. They lost to Van Buren.
Four years later the Whigs, having learned a lesson, held a convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and nominated William Henry Harrison on the first ballot. The Democrats nominated Van Buren again, but then their convention deadlocked and they couldn't nominate a vice presidential candidate. It didn't matter, as Harrison won the election of 1840.
Political Convention Rules Could Create Problems
The rules governing political conventions sometimes created very difficult hurdles for candidates. Two rules in particular tended to be problematic at various times:
- The Unit Rule: Under this rule, all the delegates from a state had to vote together as one. As delegates tended to be apportioned according to how many electoral votes a state had, the populous states at the time, such as New York and Pennsylvania, would wield very powerful blocs of votes at nominating conventions.
- The Two-Thirds Rule: This rule specified that a candidate had to receive two-thirds of the delegate votes at the convention to be declared the nominee. If a candidate did not receive the required votes, another round of voting called a ballot would be held until someone did receive the two-thirds of the total votes cast and was declared the nominee.
Political Conventions Turned Dramatic in the Mid-1840s
The Democratic Convention held in May 1844 set a pattern for brokered conventions. Two strong candidates, former president Van Buren and Lewis Cass, an experienced politician from Michigan, faced off.
The convention had adopted a "two-thirds" rule. And Van Buren and Cass were so evenly matched that neither man could gather the necessary votes to secure the nomination.
A series of inconclusive votes were held, and eventually another candidate, James K. Polk of Tennessee, was put into contention on the eighth ballot.
Finally, on the ninth ballot the New York delegation gave up on nominating Van Buren, and a stampede of votes finally secured the nomination for Polk.
Polk became known as a dark horse candidate, but he went on to the win the election of 1844.
Epic Brokered Conventions Were Held In 1852
Political conventions held eight years later became legendary for seemingly endless balloting.
On June 1, 1852, the Democrats convened in Baltimore. A number of candidates were considered, and Franklin Pierce was finally nominated on the 49th ballot.
In the convention voting, Pierce, who was considered another dark horse candidate, beat James Buchanan (who would become president four years later), Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and even Jefferson Davis, who would eventually become the president of the Confederate States of America.
Not to be outdone, the Whig Party convened in Baltimore on June 16, 1852, and nominated General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War, on the 53rd ballot. Scott defeated Daniel Webster and Millard Fillmore (who had become president after the death of Zachary Taylor).
Only One Convention in 1856 Featured Numerous Ballots
The American Party (commonly known as the Know-Nothings) held a convention in January 1856 and nominated former president Millard Fillmore on the first formal ballot.
In 1856 the Republican Party held its first convention in Philadelphia in June of 1856, and nominated politically-connected explorer John C. Frémont on the first ballot.
Keeping with their tradition of brokered conventions, the Democrats that year took 17 ballots to nominate James Buchanan, who triumphed over the incumbent Franklin Pierce.
Brokered Conventions Endured Throughout the 1800s
In the final series of political conventions before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party on the third ballot, after his campaign managers engaged in some skillful maneuvering.
And in 1860 the Democrats held a convention which split into two factions, when led to two Democratic candidates that fall, Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckenridge.
In the later decades of the 19th century conventions tended to be brokered, and sometimes numerous ballots were required. In 1876 it took the Republican Party seven ballots to nominate Rutherford B. Hayes, and in 1880 36 ballots were needed to nominate James Garfield.
Brokered conventions continued well into the 20th century, but eventually faded away as the system of state primaries and caucuses tended to ensure who would win the nomination. Political conventions in the modern era tend to be spectacles designed for television, and not the events they once were.