Ain’t No Party Like a… Political Party Convention?*

past-political-conventions-1024x636Unless you are living under a rock, you probably know that this week is the Republican National Convention, and next week is the Democratic National Convention. A party convention is where each state’s delegates vote among all of their party’s candidates that ran in the primary. The winner is the party’s official nominee for the general election. The rules are complicated and vary for each state and between the parties, but in general, the delegates are supposed to vote based on how the residents of their state voted in the popular vote. It is complicated because states have different rules about how delegate votes are apportioned based on the popular vote, and the rules are not exactly the same for the Republican and Democratic conventions.

In some states, the delegates’ votes are supposed to be representative of the votes each candidate won in the popular vote. So even if a candidate won only 10% of the popular vote in a state, he or she would still get a few delegates’ votes from that state. Other states have a “winner take all” system, where the candidate that wins the popular vote of a state will automatically  get all of that state’s delegates’ votes, and none will go to the other candidates. Finally, there are different rules about how the delegates representing candidates who withdraw from the race are supposed to vote. In some states, they automatically go to the candidate that won that state’s primary. The Democratic party has the added twist of superdelegates- delegates, usually party leaders and insiders, who can vote however they want, regardless of the popular vote in their state. There has been much controversy over how “democratic” the superdelegate system actually is.

1924convention-1The “presumptive nominee” is usually known at least a month before the convention, based on the popular vote and how the apportioned delegates are supposed to vote. However, the presumptive nominee does not officially become the general election nominee until the delegates vote at the convention. Conventions were not an original part of our electoral system, and there is no provision for them in the Constitution- the founding fathers did not really even want a two-party system. For the past couple of decades there have been no surprises or drama at the conventions, but that is not always the case. Drama has unfolded on the convention floors and in the smoke-filled rooms of conventions past.

The most famous uprising at a political convention was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when there were massive protests set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, police brutality, poverty in the city of Chicago, and the unusually hot summer. Learn more about this fascinating episode of our electoral history in this Smithsonian article and in the Criterion film Medium Cool. The film was a revolutionary combination of documentary and storytelling, with the filmmaker himself getting caught up in the actual events (and it is in our collection at the McAllen Public Library). To learn more about other dramatic conventions of our past, check out this Politico article.

*Original lyrics from Coolio’s mid-90’s hit, which has been commonly appropriated for other uses over the years.

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