Avoiding the mistakes of conventions past: Can the parties steer clear of these historical pitfalls?

Nominating conventions have a often been a venue for chaos, incompetence and embarrassment

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 16, 2016 10:30AM (EDT)

George Bush and Dan Quayle at the Republican National Convention in the Houston Astrodome, August 20, 1992.  (AP/Joe Marquette)
George Bush and Dan Quayle at the Republican National Convention in the Houston Astrodome, August 20, 1992. (AP/Joe Marquette)

In anticipation of the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions later this month, it seems appropriate to brace ourselves for something historic. After all, Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever to be nominated by a major party, as well as a traditionally polarizing figure who only recently managed to win the endorsement of her chief rival, Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is, if anything, more controversial, so much so that many of his rallies have been marked by outbursts of violence.

To understand what might occur when each candidate is nominated, it helps to look at other national conventions from our recent history.

Conventions that have led to third-party insurgencies (Republicans in 1912, Democrats in 1948)

The two most conspicuous examples here include the Republican convention of 1912 and the Democratic convention of 1948. On both occasions, an incumbent president who had just been renominated faced staunch opposition from interparty factions that opposed large sections of his agenda: In 1912, it was President William Taft, who was accused of being too conservative on economic issues by former president Theodore Roosevelt and the progressives, and in 1948 it was President Harry Truman who was criticized for taking too strong a stance in favor of African-American civil rights by predominantly Southern segregationists. Because neither faction got what they wished, both conventions ended with the dissatisfied bolting and running third-party alternatives — although it’s notable that, while the dissident progressives wound up winning more votes than the actual Republican nominee in 1912 (in part because Roosevelt had always intended to challenge Taft in the general election if he couldn’t get nominated himself), Strom Thurmond’s third-party campaign as a Dixiecrat failed to thwart Truman’s election in 1948.

Could either of those things happen in 2016? Now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton, it seems much less likely that this will occur on the Democratic side. That said, the burden will rest on Sanders to deliver a helluva nomination speech, and even then there is the looming risk that many in the Sanders camp will vociferously refuse to accept a candidate whose ideology is a moderated version of their own. By contrast, if any of the anti-Trump Republicans are going to bolt from the GOP, it is quite likely that they will do so for the candidate already nominated by one of America’s main third parties, Libertarian Gary Johnson. That said, because party luminaries like Mitt Romney are already openly contemplating exactly that, Trump will have his work cut out for him.

Conventions that have embarrassed the party with outbursts of violence (Republicans in 1964, Democrats in 1968)

On the last occasion that the extreme right-wing took over the Republican Party and nominated one of its own as their presidential candidate (Barry Goldwater), the year was 1964 and the resulting GOP convention was nothing short of a televised debacle. The spectacle of moderates like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller being jeered in the most vulgar language from pro-Goldwater delegates — to say nothing of the threats of physical violence that lurked beneath the surface — marred Goldwater’s coronation and cemented the nation’s image of him as a dangerous radical. Things were even worse for the Democratic convention in 1968, when the party’s inability to mollify critics of the Vietnam War led to outbursts of violence among protesters in the streets of Chicago, helping destroy the candidacy of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Both of these outcomes seem quite possible in 2016 — but definitely more so on Trump’s side. Certainly, Clinton’s supporters will be magnanimous in victory and, so long as Sanders can rein in the Bernie Bros, it’s unlikely that his backers will openly embarrass him with rhetorical or physical violence against Clinton and her supporters. By contrast, it is no secret that many in the Trump camp are openly contemptuous of the Republican Party establishment and vice versa, and given the vulgar language commonly used by both Trump and his alt-right supporters, it won’t take much for an incident to humiliate them on national television. Similarly, because Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has inspired violence among his supporters and because America has already seen ugly relations between law enforcement and racial minority citizens, the likely presence of Black Lives Matter and other protest groups to object to Trump’s political message could prove to be a political powder keg … although unlike Humphrey, who abhorred violence and was devastated by the bloodshed at his convention, Trump’s hyperviolent brand may actually benefit from his knack for stirring a tempest and then blaming the victims who were tossed.

Incompetent conventions (Democrats in 1972, Republicans in 1992)

Although Democratic nominee George McGovern was likely to lose the 1972 presidential election regardless of the convention because of his left-wing views (which would be considered moderate by modern standards), it didn’t help that his inept campaign staff chose a vice presidential running mate with an undisclosed history of mental illness and scheduled his nomination speech for 3 a.m. ET. The Republican convention in 1992 wasn’t much better, foolishly allowing the far right-wing Pat Buchanan — President George H. W. Bush’s chief rival for the nomination that year — to speak without removing the more inflammatory misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric from his endorsement speech.

Frankly, both sides seem capable of committing similar acts of incompetence in 2016. Although Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist language may wash well with the Democratic Party base, it could have a toxic effect on national audiences, a possibility that Clinton needs to take into consideration when vetting his inevitable speech. Similarly, because the Trump campaign is largely run by neophytes not dissimilar to the crew that nominated McGovern in ‘72, it will be especially imperative for them to stay on top of the ball when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of making sure all the gears of the convention click into place.

If one positive can be said about the 2016 presidential election, it is that it’s shaping up to be one of the most memorable contests of all time. Unfortunately, when previous national conventions have made history, it has usually been for ugly reasons rather than uplifting ones. With any luck, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be nominated by their respective parties without incident.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012, was a guest on Fox Business in 2019, repeatedly warned of Trump's impending refusal to concede during the 2020 election, spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2021, was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022 and appeared on NPR in 2023. His diverse interests are reflected in his interviews including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), director Jason Reitman ("The Front Runner"), inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr ("F Is for Family"), novelist James Patterson ("The President's Daughter"), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen ("Animaniacs"), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei ("Star Trek"), climatologist Michael E. Mann, World War II historian Joshua Levine (consultant to "Dunkirk"), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), seismologist John Vidale, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert ("Saw VI"), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass ("SpongeBob Squarepants"), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), Senator Martin Heinrich (2013-present), Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, Rep. Eric Swalwell (2013-present), Fox News host Tucker Carlson, actor R. J. Mitte ("Breaking Bad"), theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross ("Scary Movie 2"), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer ("Avatar"), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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