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Democrats Had Stronger Convention - But Does It Matter?

Political analysts put this year's political conventions in perspective by referencing some tumultuous events of the past

By G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young

Let’s say it clearly.

The Democrats had a good convention, one clearly reflected in a respectable post-convention bounce – the Republicans, not so much.

Not that the GOP had a really bad or a dreadful convention. In truth, it had its moments. As conventions go, however, mediocre would describe it best. It wasn’t the worst and certainly wasn’t the best.

But the really interesting question is whether it matters that one party had a solid convention while the other party’s convention was merely so-so. Will it alter the outcome of the presidential race?

While many modern conventions of both parties have been uniformly dull affairs, long forgotten by Election Day, historically some party conventions have mattered a great deal.

The record suggests, in fact, that conventions are much like vice presidential choices. A “bad” or controversial V.P. selection can hurt a ticket as happened to Democrats, for example, in 1972 and Republicans in 2008.

But a “good” V.P. choice almost never matters in the outcome of the election. The exception probably was Lyndon Johnson in 1960. He helped John Kennedy capture Texas’s vital electoral votes.

Something similar seems to characterize party conventions. “Bad” ones can inflict serious, sometimes fatal, damage on a party and its presidential aspirants. But “good” ones seem to matter much less in terms of their ultimate impact on the November election.

Numerous examples exist of damaging conventions in each party.

For Democrats the most recent if not most egregious “bad” convention was the 1968 edition held in Chicago. There the party, amidst rioting in the streets, fist fights on the convention floor and acrimonious debate among delegates, nominated a fatally damaged candidate (Hubert Humphrey) who went on to lose to Richard Nixon in November.

Democrats staged an encore convention four years later in 1972 when a badly divided, poorly managed party nominated George McGovern. He eventually lost by one of the most lopsided tallies in modern times.

For Republicans their most recent “bad” convention was 1976. Wounded by lingering residue of the Watergate scandal, the Nixon pardon and split between Ford moderates and Reagan conservatives, the GOP barely managed to nominate an incumbent president. The result was a nail biter victory by Jimmy Carter in November.

An even better example was the bitter nominating struggle the Republicans had in 1964 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater won after a raucous convention that split the party so badly that Democrat Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in November by landslide proportions.

The pattern exhibited in these relatively recent elections also manifests itself in presidential elections at least as far back as the Civil War. Several examples will suffice to illustrate the pattern.

The first dates back to 1860 when Democrats met for their Charleston convention, only to adjourn in deadlock unable to nominate a candidate. This contentious convention led to a split of the party into northern and southern wings, each of which eventually nominated different candidates at later conventions.

Most historians believe the Democrats schism contributed significantly to the outbreak of the Civil War. It also guaranteed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Almost 40 years later, in 1896, a tumultuous convention struggle over the gold standard and populism led Democrats to reject an incumbent president (Grover Cleveland) as well as most of his economic policies.

Their convention thrown wide open, Democrats then chose the youngest man ever nominated by a major political party, William Jennings Bryan. He went on to lose narrowly to William McKinley in one of the most dramatic elections in American history.

But perhaps the most famous example of a party convention gone awry occurred in 1912. This time it was Republicans battling the forces of party discord. A raging battle between incumbent William Howard Taft and former president Teddy Roosevelt ripped the GOP apart at their Chicago convention.

The Taft forces eventually renominated their candidate, but the outraged Roosevelt bolted the convention with his supporters to run as a third party candidate. The Republican split led to Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s victory in the only election in American history in which an incumbent president came in third.

What if anything does this history forecast for 2012?

Certainly, nothing like the convention calamities portrayed above happened this year. Republicans may not have had a great convention but it wasn’t disastrous either. And American history suggests it is the disastrous ones that matter most.

On the other hand, the Obama “bounce” coming out of the Democratic convention cannot be ignored in a race as close as this one. His uptick appears to be at least five points, possibly larger.

Obama now leads 49 to 44 percent in the Gallup tracking poll, the largest lead since April. In such a tight race with few undecided voters remaining to weigh in, Romney’s task looms formidable.

This is no longer a dead heat race – but it is still a race either party can win. Romney’s chances of doing so, however, are significantly less than they were just two weeks ago.

Reaganite September 16, 2012 at 11:34 AM
Stop rewriting history. The convention was a bust. Voting God out three times, loving taxes and abortion. Obama unable to fill 65,000 seats forcing the messiah's speech indoors. This was one of the most spectacular failures in the history of conventions.
Elsa September 16, 2012 at 12:26 PM
Why is her picture at the end? Oh right. She runs the whitebouse and the oval office.
Amend September 16, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Be real. The GOP convention was a snooze fest filled with venom and empty rhetoric. All they could offer was criticism, and some lame promise of "we can do it better", but they never explained how.
Ben Miller September 16, 2012 at 03:32 PM
NO political analysts say the Democratic convention was stronger. That vote over God and the capital of Israel, coupled with what most analysts (except Democrat commentators) said was a lackluster speech by President Obama underscored the sad tone of the whole thing. It was the best thing for Republicans, if we're being honest. Watching half the party vote one way and the other half vote against it, then seeing party leadership ignore the vote (3 times) and declare that a 2/3rds majority was great for anyone who doesn't want to see the President reelected. The Democrats are often accused of voter fraud, which they repeatedly deny, yet the whole world saw their leaders do it to their very own convention delegates live on tv. Plus, as more details come out about Clinton allegedly raping those three women (including a Democrat fundraiser) who were paid hefty settlements and forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, along with the well-known sexual harassment and perjury charges with Lewinsky and Flowers, making him the Keynote Speaker was probably a bad move.
Bye Bye Romney September 16, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Sheldon Adelson, Romney's uber-billionaire casino owner and financial backer, pledged to give Romney $100 million -- or "whatever it takes" -- to defeat Obama. Do you know why??? As Bill Clinton reminded us, sometimes the answer is as simple as arithmetic. So let's do the math: According to a new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Adelson will get $2 billion in tax savings from Romney in return for his support. And it will be paid for by every taxpayer reading this blog, so pass the word QUICKLY. If Obama wins, everyone pays their fair share of taxes...including Mr. Adelson! Tell me... WHICH ONE IS MORE FAIR FOR AMERICAN FAMILIES? WHICH ONE CAN YOU AFFORD? Americans cannot afford to live the Romney-Ryan lifestyle without having the same personal wealth. We can DREAM...but we know that it's not reality. Romney is still dreaming.
Wallst September 16, 2012 at 04:51 PM
The Republican convention wins the blue ribbon for most lies in convention speech history.
RW62 September 17, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Keep drinking the Cool-Aid Libs!
RW62 September 17, 2012 at 02:47 PM
Keep drinking the Cool-Aid Libs!
Publius 2.0 September 17, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Osama Bin Laden is Dead and General Motors is Alive. Your heart is where your treasure is. Romney is so patriotic, his money needs a passport. It summers in the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. The D is for Drive Forward, the R is for Reverse. The two Conventions made it absolutely clear that the Democrats put the middle class first while the Republicans put Bermuda tax shelters first. I think the correct spelling is "Kool-Aid," and it tastes very good.
An interested bystander September 17, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Let's see... Romney has violated no laws regarding his finances. George Soros (Liberal benefactor) is a criminal, having been convicted of insider trading. Romney, Republican. Soros, Democrat. Don't be hypocritical.
Vickie September 17, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Let me be clear here. Mitt Romney made his money - his CAREER - by buying businesses, and as owner, BORROWING more money than those businesses could possibly pay back and BANKRUPTING them. Yes, I'm talking about Bain. LOL at all the "Kool aid" comments. Just keep on believing everything Fox News and Karl Rove shoves down your throat.
Vickie September 17, 2012 at 07:38 PM
If you want to talk about voter fraud, why don't you talk about what the Republican party did to Ron Paul?
RW62 September 17, 2012 at 08:09 PM
Cheers
RW62 September 17, 2012 at 08:10 PM
General Motors executives want the Treasury Department to sell its almost 27 percent stake in the company because, they say, the feds are hurting their image and government pay restrictions are chasing away top talent. The Feds don't want to sell their shares... why? cool-aid
An interested bystander September 18, 2012 at 01:18 AM
I always enjoy the Fox News lines, the brainwashing of liberal worker-bees continues. Vickie, do you know what Bain's track record was in terms of businesses succeeding (and thus creating jobs) vs. failure? I assume you do since you're making such definitive statements?
Daxton September 19, 2012 at 05:24 PM
@ An interested bystander You do realize that Fox news supports republicans correct?
Daxton September 19, 2012 at 05:25 PM
*Kool-Aid
Elsa September 19, 2012 at 10:37 PM
I had general motors stock. They bankrupt ,Obam saved them my stock was worthless and he gave it to the employees as a perk So no he did not save general motors misinformed person; i did
louis kootsares September 26, 2012 at 01:42 PM
patriotic?who along with his wife refused to saute the flag stand up when the national anthem played and said the new anthem should be changed?clue for the boohoo liberals..not romney... who apologised to terrorists who killed americans after they stormed our embassy?think hard...who wants to throw senior citizens to the dogs by taking 800billion from medicare.. the list goes on the answer is ayatolla obahma

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