In the summer of 1956, as a 6th grader, I watched the Democratic National Convention with amazement as a young Irish Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, came within 38 ½ votes of the Democratic nomination for vice president of the United States. I also watched as he lost that nomination to Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee on the next ballot.
The only event during that period of my life that rivaled the excitement I felt from that convention was when the West Virginia University Mountaineers lost the 1959 NCAA championship to the University of California-Berkley in the final seconds, 71-70.
To me, that 1956 convention had all the thrills of a major athletic contest. I quickly became a political junkie and watched every moment of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign with great interest.
It is certainly true that excitement is no reason to go back to the days of smoke-filled rooms at conventions. Besides, with Donald Trump’s victories on Tuesday, a brokered convention seems less likely this year. Yet a lot of ink has been spilled on this topic already and I believe there are still a few points to be made. Also, it sure could be a pretty exciting summer if Republicans did wind up with a contested convention.
Yet the history and purpose of political party conventions has always been to come together to nominate their party’s candidate for president. A political party chooses the person they believe best represents their party’s chances for victory in the fall, and best represents the ideals and values of their party.
After a long tradition of leaving the selection of candidates to party members, it was felt that the process needed to be more democratic. The primary system developed in the early 20th century, and evolved to leave the decision up to voters around the country. Conventions have obviously become boring events with no useful purpose other than to provide an infomercial for the party and its candidate.
While I don’t question the value of creating a more democratic process, I still think one has to wonder how much preferable the current system is. The primary process has many flaws. Although it has become traditional and possesses a certain charm, early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have an outsized influence on the final candidate. Caucuses are limited to the most committed party faithful. The order of the primaries means that states voting later in the process have little to say about what happens.
Additionally, the issue of open primaries or cross-over primaries means that many voters who are not part of the party can have a large say in who becomes the nominee. The primaries across the country operate with an endless array of rules. Many primaries award delegates on a proportional basis, while others are winner-take-all primaries. There is sometimes mischief in crossover voting as individuals may vote in another party’s primary to deny a candidate the nomination or select a candidate that can be easily defeated in the general election. The entire primary process hardly qualifies as eminently fair or democratic.
If no candidate receives enough delegates on the first ballot, it is the job of the assembled delegates to choose a nominee. There may be some arm twisting, but in the end the party will attempt to do what is in the best interest of the party, and ultimately (at least hopefully) for the country.
Every attempt to predict what will happen in the 2016 presidential race has been doomed to failure as this campaign appears to operate with its own set of rules. I do believe, however, that a political party has a right to choose a candidate that they determine will best represent their party’s interests. Especially in this crazy election year, a brokered convention might just be the best way to do that.
If so, I may find myself watching with great interest for the first time in a long time.
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