Political conventions aren't as smart as you remember

The ultimate conventional pick, Democrat John W. Davis.

Donald Trump is unintentionally responsible for nostalgia toward the “smoke-filled rooms” that once produced presidential nominees at national conventions. The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria writes,

The old system steered toward moderation because it was run mostly by local and state officials who had won general elections and then had to govern. Today, delegates are chosen by primary voters, a much smaller, narrower and more extreme slice of the country. It is ironic that the old smoke-filled rooms were in some sense more representative of the general voter than the open primaries of today.
 

But there is no evidence that conventions are better at producing nominees that are competent or popular. If the parties are no longer putting forward candidates who appeal to independent and moderate voters, it’s because they no longer have moderate wings. The method of choosing a nominee is beside the point.

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We can thank political conventions for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower but also for Warren Harding and his scandal-tarred presidency, as well as repeat nominations for William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson after the country had already rejected them by clear margins. We cannot credit conventions for Teddy Roosevelt or Harry Truman, the fondly remembered “straight talkers” who were both elevated to the Oval Office by a president’s death. (Four years after leaving the White House, Teddy tried to get the G.O.P. nomination through the then-novel method of winning primaries, and some of his supporters prepared for “roughhouse tactics” to get their way at the Republican convention, but incumbent president William H. Taft was renominated thanks to party insiders.)

Landslides in November were more common before primaries made conventions obsolete—either because conventions were better at producing really good candidates or because they often picked candidates that were really bad fits for the national mood. (Who misses James Cox or Alf Landon?) The ultimate conventional pick, John W. Davis, won the Democratic nomination in 1924 after a record 103 ballots. An opponent of women's suffrage and child-labor laws, he got 29 percent against Republican Calvin Coolidge and other candidates in the general election, the worst showing by a Democrat in the party's history. Since the last convention that could be called “contested” (the Republicans’ in 1976), the only major-party nominee to lose by more than 10 points was Democrat Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mr. Mondale, a favorite of party insiders, was exactly the kind of candidate who might have emerged from a smoke-filled room; fortunately for him, he did just well enough in the primaries against Gary Hart so that superdelegates didn’t have to jump in and preserve his destiny to get throttled by Mr. Reagan.

How you view conventions may depend on whether you classify the biggest losers since World War II, Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972, as part of the old or new nominating system. They didn’t emerge from multiple ballots at a convention, it’s true, but they didn’t win many primaries either. Mr. Goldwater and Mr. McGovern instead worked the grassroots of their respective parties, electing allies to state committees, winning state conventions and mastering the rules of delegate allocation long before the parties met to officially choose a nominee.

I count them as the last products of the pre-primary system, and the kind of true-believer nominees we would still be getting from contested conventions. Mr. Zakaria imagines a convention run by “local and state officials who had won general elections,” but look around at your own local and state officials, most of them elected from districts where their party has an overwhelming advantage. Do you consider them a force for moderation today?

Wingless parties

The problem is that the moderating forces in each party—which helped nominate the charismatic but ideologically vague Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952—don’t exist anymore. For most of the convention era, the Democrats had to balance two very different major constituencies: rural whites in the South and largely Catholic urban voters in the North. Most of the time, this tension produced patently unsuitable nominees. For example, Al Smith, who became the first Catholic nominee in 1928, was such the personification of New York City that Paul Bunyan couldn’t have balanced the ticket. Once in a great while it produced an F.D.R., the only Democrat between 1876 and 1964 to get a majority of the popular vote in November.

Over the same period, the Republicans were somewhat more ideologically cohesive, and they strove to maintain a small-town, “Main Street” reformist brand. They nominated several moderate “Mr. Fix-It” types known more for their managerial skills than political philosophies, including Herbert Hoover, Thomas E. Dewey and Mr. Eisenhower.

The smoke-filled room was on its way out by the 1960s. The Goldwater movement among Republicans and then the McGovern movement among Democrats showed that both parties were becoming more narrow ideologically—but, again, since these activists were gaining more control over the nomination of state and local officials, as well as the selection of delegates to the national conventions, it’s not clear how the “old system” of moderation praised by Mr. Zakaria could have survived.

The streamlining of the parties was probably inevitable. The Civil Rights Movement cost the Democrats its Southern “Dixiecrat” wing. (Segregationists certainly pulled the party away from the left, but does that make them a “moderating” force?) The Republican Party embraced a small-government philosophy and shed its welfare-state champions such as Nelson Rockefeller. There is some dispute over whether voters themselves have become more ideologically rigid, but there is plenty of evidence that they have become more partisan. Parties now concentrate on increasing turnout among their favored demographic groups, rather than on winning over independent or centrist voters. That strategy favors a true believer like Ted Cruz over a squish like Dwight Eisenhower.

Indeed, Ted Cruz, one of the most conservative and unyielding Republicans in Congress, is now hoping to prevail at the Republican convention after finishing a distant second in the primaries. Donald Trump, it is true, would never be picked in a smoke-filled room, but that’s mostly because his party loyalty is suspect and he’s not reliably conservative on foreign policy, social issues like gay marriage and “reforming” (cutting) Social Security. If party leaders were pragmatic, they would pick John Kasich, who runs the best in polls against Hillary Clinton, but the backlash from grassroots Republicans would be too great.

There is still something comparable to the smoke-filled room in American politics, and that’s the selection of Congressional leaders. That system forced out Republican House Speaker John Boehner for bargaining with a Democratic president in order to keep the federal government from defaulting on its debt, and for somehow not doing enough to repeal “Obamacare.” His replacement, Paul Ryan, won the post after promising not to bring immigration reform to a vote—even though the Republican Party’s refusal to consider legal status for any undocumented migrant may cost the party dearly as Hispanics become a growing share of the electorate. It’s understandable that many party loyalists are souring on the presidential primary system after it benefited Mr. Trump, but there’s no reason to believe that a convention would conjure up a more moderate, more conciliatory or more electable candidate.

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