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Conventional Wisdom

Presidential primaries have a history of corruption, bribery and weren’t very democratic: Ask FDR.

The Republican National Convention in Philadelphia is finding itself thronged with media-savvy protesters (they put infants, elderly, and wheelchair-bound paraplegics in the front of the line to reduce arrests) and unforeseen medical emergencies (former President Gerald Ford had some minor strokes). We figure these silly antics make up for the recent sobriety the presidential nomination process itself has acquired: until 1968, it wasn't even remotely fair or democratic. Sure, the elections allowed the public to choose between essentially two candidates. But which two? The respective political party bosses were pretty much free to pick whomever they pleased. As the infamous Democratic Party Boss Tweed from New York once said, "I don't care who does the electin', so long as I do the nominatin'."

Prior to 1968,[1] only sixteen states had primaries with which to select delegates to send to their conventions. That means the 34 other states selected the nominee by fairly nefarious processes. Some states allowed the delegates to be handpicked by party bosses or the governor, thereby ensuring the well-connected candidate would carry a chosen state. In other states the process was complicated and vaguely democratic, but party leaders, trying to exercise control, would use goons to bodily prevent opposing delegates from entering the convention. Alternately, the thugs might harass them upon arrival. For their part, delegates often freely announced themselves as for sale to the highest bidder. When the Democratic party demanded reform of its conventions in 1968, it discovered that eight states didn't have any rules whatsoever for selecting delegates, leaving doors wide open to unchecked bribery and rampant manipulation.

Illicit control was everywhere: townships in Kentucky held meetings outside in December to discourage voter turnout, villages in Missouri withheld the location and time of the meeting to all but the most "loyal" of party members to prevent the opposition from showing up, and a certain Missouri township held its meeting aboard a traveling bus loaded with liquor. "Proxy voter" abuse was rampant; towns quadrupled in size overnight by the invention of fictitious voters. Some states levied fees, often running into the thousands of dollars, on party delegates instructed to vote for the opposition. Such delegates would shrug and go home rather than pay out of pocket, while their preferred brethren were admitted for free. Of course, what this really meant was that few candidates had enough friends in high places to ever be taken seriously. In the 1968 election, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey didn't bother to enter the race until almost May of that year, skipped all the primaries, yet swept the nomination. How? All the delegates were in his back pocket.

Gutter King
Gutter King

With such shenanigans, a given party could virtually guarantee that the favored candidate would be nominated whether the constituency wanted him or not, even if the candidate himself did not feel disposed towards running. Indeed, the nomination of a reluctant President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to run for his third term was conducted by essentially a single man. Roosevelt, tired after two terms, was argued into running for a third by Chicago mayor Ed Kelly. Kelly managed to convince the Democratic Party to hold the convention in Chicago rather than Philadelphia, where he could easily manipulate things. Unfortunately, FDR announced at the convention that he wasn't interested in running. However, the wily Kelly had stationed Thomas D. Garry, Chicago superintendent of sewers, in the basement of the convention center with a microphone wired into the public address system and a switch to turn everything else off. At the appropriate moment (right after FDR's spokesman announced his reluctance to run), Garry shouted into the mike, "We want Roosevelt! Alabama wants Roosevelt!" The Alabama delegates looked at one another in confusion. "Jersey City wants Roosevelt!" The New Jersey boss Frank Hague asked his delegation, "Who said that?" The chant caught on, and before long, the entire convention was clamoring for FDR's reelection. He subsequently took the nomination, the Presidency, and the United States into World War II, all thanks to a lowly sewer guy.

So as the fair city of Philadelphia wrestles with protesters and the headaches that accompany a national political convention (it's troublesome out there: Philly Police Commissioner John Timoney got his own bicycle thrown at him), we ask its citizens to be mindful that the nomination is at least vaguely democratic, unlike the old days. We'd like to think the time is past when a single person could ensure a candidacy who wasn't actually the candidate, and we're pretty sure it has. We hope.


  1. The entire party nomination process was revamped by Democrats in 1968 and Republicans in 1972.

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