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If Ohio is ‘the key to winning a presidential election,’ why aren’t conventions held in state?

Recent trend is first ballot decisions

If Ohio is ‘the key to winning a presidential election,’ why aren’t conventions held in state?

Compiled by Jim Blount

If Ohio truly is a key state in presidential elections, why aren’t nominating conventions held in Cincinnati, Columbus or Cleveland? Can you remember the last major party convention in Ohio? How many, if any, U. S. presidents have been nominated in Ohio conventions?

The 2012 conventions will be in southern locations -- the Republicans in Tampa, Fla., starting Aug. 27, and the Democrats in Charlotte, N. C., beginning Sept. 3. At this point, it’s uncertain if winning the nomination in a southern state will be influential in determining the winner Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Compared to most 19th and 20th century conventions, little drama is expected in either Tampa or Charlotte. The presidential nominees -- President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney -- are old news. Perhaps some intra-party battles over planks in a party platform or challenges to delegate credentials will provide some spontaneous excitement.

For the last 60 years, television exposure has been more important than convention location. But convention TV viewing is on the decline and coverage has been reduced. Major TV networks no longer present gavel-to-gavel programming. The late dates of the 2012 conventions reflect their low priority with TV audiences. The conventions have been scheduled to avoid competition with the summer Olympics July 27-Aug. 12 in London.

Primary elections -- which have replaced party caucuses in the last 50 years -- have drained most of the suspense from the 2012 conventions.

The 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago -- notable for several reasons -- is the last party confab that had unwanted conflicts. That year Hubert Humphrey won the nomination on the first ballot. He hadn’t won any primary elections. He hadn’t entered any primaries. But his convention triumph was overshadowed by violent events outside the hall -- a variety of protests, including anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.

Adding to the tension at Chicago were two assassinations that preceded the convention: (1) Martin Luther King Jr. April 4 in Memphis, and (2) Sen. Robert Kennedy, a Democrat contender, June 5 in Los Angeles after he won the California primary.

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The last Democratic convention to go beyond one presidential ballot was 60 years ago. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot. Fourteen consecutive nominees, 1956-2008, have been decided on the first round. The last Republican convention to go beyond one ballot was 64 years ago. In 1948, Thomas E. Dewey was chosen on the third ballot. Fifteen straight GOP nominations, 1952-2008, have been first ballot victors.

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Three nominees selected in Ohio conventions were elected president in the ensuing general elections. They were (1) 1856, Democrat James Buchanan, nominated in Smith & Nixon’s Hall in Cincinnati; (2) 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, an Ohioan, selected in Music Hall in Cincinnati, (3) and the last, 1924, Republican Calvin Coolidge, chosen in Cleveland’s Municipal Auditorium.

After Buchanan in 1856, the only Democrat nominated in Ohio was Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania, 1880 in Music Hall in Cincinnati.

In 1864, during the Civil War, the short-lived Independent Republican Party met June 2-6 in Cleveland and tapped John C. Fremont of California. The controversial Civil War general had been the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856. In 1864, he was set to oppose the incumbent, Republican Abraham Lincoln, but withdrew before the election and supported Lincoln.

There was another Republican split in 1872, when the GOP’s Ulysses S. Grant was seeking a second term. The newly-formed Liberal Republican Party convened May 1 in Cincinnati’s Music Hall and nominated Horace Greeley, a New York newspaper editor, who failed to unseat Grant.

The Republican party returned to Ohio three times, choosing (1) Hayes in Cincinnati in 1876, (2) Coolidge in Cleveland in 1924, and (3) Alford M. Landon of Kansas in Cleveland’s Municipal Auditorium in 1936.

That means it has been 76 years since a major party convention was held in Ohio -- a state repeatedly identified by the media and political experts as "the key to winning a presidential election."

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Among other parties, Ohio has hosted the Prohibition Party nominating convention six times. The election years, the nominees and the cities were: (1) 1872, James Black of Pennsylvania, Columbus; (2) 1876, Green Clay Smith of Kentucky, Cleveland; (3) 1880, Neal Dow of Maine, Cleveland; (4) 1892, John Bidwell of California, Cincinnati; (5) 1908, Eugene Wilder of Illinois, Columbus; and (6) 1924, Herman Preston of Missouri, Columbus.

A variety of other parties who selected nominees in Ohio include: (1) 1872, Labor Reform Party, David Davis of Illinois, Columbus; (2) 1888, Union Labor Party, Alson Jennes Streeter of Illinois, Cincinnati; (3) 1900, People’s Party (Populist), Wharton Barker of Pennsylvania, Cincinnati: (4) 1924, Progressive Party, Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, Cleveland; (5) 1924, Socialist Party, Robert M. LaFollete of Wisconsin, Cleveland; (6) 1924, American Party, Gilbert O. Nations of Washington, D. C., Columbus; (7) 1960, National States’ Rights Party, Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas, Dayton; (8) 1980, Citizens Party, Barry Commoner of New York, Cleveland; and (9) 1980, Socialist Workers Party, Andrew Pulley of Illinois, Oberlin.

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Ohio’s busiest year was 1924 with five party gatherings. It started June 3 with the American Party in Columbus and continued June 4 with the Prohibition Party, also in Columbus; the Republicans opening June 10 in Cleveland; the Progressives July 4 in Cleveland; and the Socialist Party July 6 in Cleveland.

Sen. Robert M. LaFollete of Wisconsin was the 1924 choice of two parties, the Progressives and the Socialists. The GOP’s Coolidge won the November election. LaFollette ranks as one of the most colorful figures in U. S. political history. He served in the U. S. House (1885-1891), the U. S. Senate (1905-1925) and Wisconsin governor (1901-1906) as a Republican. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 1912 and 1916, and a founder of the National Progressive Republican League. He was serving in the Senate when he died June 18, 1925.

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How many times have the major parties held their conventions in the same city in the same year? Six times the Democrats and Republicans chose the same city. Four were in Chicago, which has waned in recent years as a political convention site. But it is by far the record holder with 25 total national major-party gatherings.   

Chicago was the site of both conventions in 1884. There was a long gap until 1932 and 1944, when the parties — pressed in part by the economic and logistical necessities caused first by the Great Depression and later by World War II — again chose Chicago as their common site. The trend continued in 1948 in Philadelphia and 1952 in Chicago.

The last time it happened, in Miami Beach in 1972, was unintentional. The GOP initially chose San Diego. But budget problems and a scandal over convention financing prompted the Republicans to move to Miami, where the Democrats had already planned to meet.

After Chicago’s 25, the cities with the most conventions are Baltimore and Philadelphia, both with 10.

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The U. S. Constitution provides for neither political parties nor presidential nominating conventions. The first convention came during the term of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. The Anti-Mason Party held the first national convention Sept. 26-28, 1830, to organize as a political party based on its suspicion of a plot by the Masonic fraternal order to seize political power. The party’s presidential nominee for the 1932 election was William Wirt of Maryland.

The second convention, held by the National Republican Party Dec. 12-15, 1831, nominated Henry Clay of Kentucky. The Democratic Party (then the Republican or Democratic-Republican party) met May 21-23, 1832, to back Andrew Jackson of Tennessee for a second term.

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The longest convention and the one with the most ballots to determine a nominee was the June 24-July 10, 1924, Democrat meeting in New York City. That year also was the first time the conventions were broadcast on radio.

On the first ballot, 431 votes were tabulated for William Gibbs McAdoo of California -- twice the total for the next candidate. But 731 votes were needed for nomination. Among the hopefuls was John William Davis of West Virginia with only 31 votes on the first count. On the 103rd ballot, Davis vaulted to the top with 844 votes and the nomination.

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Four years earlier, 1920, the Democrat convention in San Francisco had also been a marathon -- 44 ballots -- with a Butler County native emerging as the nominee. The party was seeking a candidate to succeed Woodrow Wilson, who had been weakened by illness near the end of his second term.

William Gibbs McAdoo (mentioned above) led the first ballot with 266 votes. James M. Cox, born in Jacksonburg, was one of 23 candidates and collected 134 votes. By the 44th round, Cox received 732 votes, three more than the 729 required for nomination.

With the June 28-July 6 convention on the west Coast, it was about 5 a.m. in Hamilton when Cox was nominated, which was cause for a local celebration. When the news reached the city, a cannon was fired and church and fire bells were tolled, an early wakeup call for many residents.

The general election was a contest between two Ohioans, both newspaper publishers. Republican Warren G. Harding was the winner.

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Democrats have a decided advantage when it comes to most ballots required to nominate a candidate. The top five are 103 in 1924 (Davis); 49 in 1852 (Franklin Pierce); 46 in 1912 (Woodrow Wilson); 44 in 1920 (Cox) and 22 in 1868 (Horatio Seymour). The most Republican ballots were 36 in 1880 (James A. Garfield) and 10 in 1920 (Harding). One of the five Whig Party conventions (1839-1856) ranks among those with the most ballots. Gen. Winfield Scott of New Jersey earned the Whig nomination on the 53rd ballot in 1852.

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The long process for some Democrat conventions was because the party required a two-third vote to nominate its candidates for 100 years. The Democrats -- then the Republican or Democratic-Republican party -- in their first convention in 1832 adopted the two-thirds rule and continued it through the 1932 convention. It was discarded in favor of a simple majority in 1936. The two-thirds rule gave the South a "veto" over Democratic nominees and led to nominations of several Northern Democrats with Southern sympathies, such as James Buchanan, prior to the Civil War. (By 1840, the Democratic-Republican Party had dropped Republican from its name.)

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The emphasis on party primaries in states has lessened, but not eliminated the possibility of a brokered convention -- when candidates and/or their mangers traded votes in return for political deals and promised offices (vice president, cabinet, ambassadors, etc.). The horse trading usually began when no candidate won the nomination on the first ballot.

The 103-ballot 1924 Democrat convention involved several stubborn factions. National prohibition was in its fourth year and there was the bitter clash between the wet and dry segments of the party. Another complication was the strength of the Ku Klux Klan that year and its stance on racial, ethnic and religious matters.

The closest convention was during that 1924 convention. A platform plank condemning the Klan was defeated by 4/20ths of a vote -- 543 7/20ths against and 543 3/20ths in favor.

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The closest recent presidential convention? In the 1976 Republican contest, President Gerald Ford defeated challenger Ronald Reagan, 1,187 to 1,070 -- a 117-vote edge.

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Benjamin Harrison, an 1852 Miami University graduate, gained the 1888 Republican nomination, thanks to some smoke-filled back room dealings by his managers. Entering the convention, Harrison's strategy was to maintain a low profile. He had only 85 votes on first ballot in competition with such notables as Ohioans John Sherman and William McKinley and Robert Todd Lincoln, oldest son of Abraham Lincoln.

Harrison won on the eighth ballot. When elected president, he had political debts to pay, obligations amassed by his campaign leaders. "When I came to power," Harrison explained, "I found that my party's leaders had taken all the power for themselves. I could not name my own cabinet. They had sold every cabinet position to pay for the election."

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Some historians claim the term dark horse was first applied to James K. Polk, the 1844 Democrat candidate. He had less than a spectacular political career before the Baltimore convention. The Tennessee candidate had zero votes on the first ballot. But his handlers weren’t upset. They were boosting Polk for vice president, realizing he had little chance for the top nomination. But they saw the potential for a deadlock involving New York’s Martin Van Buren and Michigan’s Lewis Cass.

Polk went from no votes on seven presidential ballot to only four on the eighth. With the leaders stubbornly stalemated, Polk was promoted as a compromise candidate on the ninth count. By the end of that ballot, he was the party’s unanimous choice.

In 1852, Democrat Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire also earned the dark horse distinction. He had no votes on the first ballot, but emerged as the nominee on the 49th.

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Counting the two 2012 events -- in Tampa and Charlotte -- only six major party conventions have been held in states that were part of the Confederacy during the Civil War (1861-1865). Democrats met in Charleston, S. C., in one of the seven 1860 conventions that preceded secession and the war. The next southern conventions were 112 years later -- in 1972 -- when both the Democrats and Republicans met in Miami. The Democrats met in Atlanta in 1988.

The first convention west of the Mississippi was in St. Louis in 1876. The Democrats nominated Samuel J. Tilden of New York on the second ballot.

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There’s some debate about the first televised presidential nominating conventions. A small part of the 1940 Republican event was televised, but it could only be viewed in Philadelphia, site of the convention. Both conventions were on TV for the first time in 1948, but only viewable between New York and Washington.

In 1952 both major party conventions were available on nationwide television. By the next conventions in 1956, parties had changed their schedules and procedures to present their best face on TV. Gradually, conventions have become more scripted and staged for TV, and conscious of talking advantage of prime time.