United States presidential nominating convention

A United States presidential nominating convention is a political convention held every four years in the United States by most of the political parties who will be fielding nominees in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The formal purpose of such a convention is to select the party's nominee for President, as well as to adopt a statement of party principles and goals known as the platform and adopt the rules for the party's activities, including the presidential nominating process for the next election cycle. Due to changes in election laws and the manner in which political campaigns are run, conventions since the last quarter of the 20th century have virtually abdicated their original roles, and are today mostly ceremonial affairs.

Generally, usage of “presidential nominating convention” refer to the two major parties’ quadrennial events: the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. Some minor parties also select their nominees by convention, including the Green Party, Socialist Party USA, Libertarian Party, Constitution Party, and Reform Party USA.



From the viewpoint of the parties, the convention cycle begins with the Call to Convention. Usually issued about 18 months in advance, the Call is an invitation from the national party to the state and territory parties to convene to select a presidential nominee. It also sets out the number of delegates to be awarded to each, as well as the rules for the nomination process.

There's no rule dictating the order, but the incumbent party traditionally holds its convention second. The tradition does not date back very far. Between 1864 and 1952, the Democrats went second every year (except for 1888). In 1956, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was the incumbent, the Democrats went first, and the party out of power has gone first ever since. (Between 1936 and 1952, the Democrats were the incumbent party and went second, but it is unclear whether they went second because they held the White House or because they had always gone second.) Since 1952, all major party conventions have been held in the months of July, August or (for the first time in 2004), early September. In recent years, conventions have mostly been scheduled about one month apart, (often with the Summer Olympics between), each with four days of business scheduled, although the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions are being held in back-to-back weeks. One reason for the late conventions has to do with campaign finance laws, which allow the candidates to spend an unlimited amount of money before the convention, but forbid fundraising after the election, in order for the parties to receive federal campaign funds.


Each party sets its own rules for the participation and format of the convention. Broadly speaking, each U.S. state and territory party is apportioned a select number of voting representatives, individually known as delegates and collectively as the delegation. Each party uses its own formula for determining the size of each delegation, factoring in such considerations as population, proportion of that state's Congressional representatives or state government officials who are members of the party, and the state's voting patterns in previous presidential elections. The selection of individual delegates and their alternates, too, is governed by the bylaws of each state party, or in some cases by state law.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention counted 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates. The 2004 Republican National Convention had 2,509 delegates and 2,344 alternates. But these individuals are dwarfed by other attendees who do not participate in the formal business of the convention. These include non-delegate party officials and activists, invited guests and companions, and international observers, not to mention numerous members of the news media, volunteers, protesters, and local business proprietors and promoters hoping to capitalize on the quadrennial event.

Host city

The convention is typically held in a major city selected by the national party organization 18–24 months before the election is to be held. As the two major conventions have grown into large, publicized affairs with significant economic impact, cities today compete vigorously to be awarded host responsibilities, citing their meeting venues, lodging facilities, and entertainment as well as offering economic incentives.

The location of early conventions was dictated by the difficulty of transporting delegates from far-flung parts of the country; early Democratic and Whig Conventions were frequently held in the central Eastern Seaboard port of Baltimore, Maryland. As the U.S. expanded westward and railroads connected cities, Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Illinois became the favored hosts. In the present day, political symbolism affects the selection of the host city as much as economic or logistical ones do. A particular city might be selected to enhance the standing of a native son, or in an effort to carry favor with residents of that state. Furthermore, arenas, domed stadiums, and other indoor sporting venues have increasingly been favored as the sites for the two major conventions.


During the day, party activists hold meetings and rallies, and work on the platform. Voting and important convention-wide addresses usually take place in the evening hours.

In recent conventions, routine business such as examining the credentials of delegations, ratifying rules and procedures, election of convention officers, and adoption of the platform usually take up the business of the first two days of the convention. Balloting is usually held on the third day, with the nomination and acceptance made on the last day.


Each convention produces a statement of principles known as its platform, containing goals and proposals known as planks. Relatively little of a party platform is even proposed as public policy. Much of the language is generic, while other sections are narrowly written to appeal to factions or interest groups within the party. Unlike electoral manifestos in many European countries, the platform is not binding on either the party or the candidate.

Because it is ideological rather than pragmatic, however, the platform is sometimes itself politicized. For example, defenders of abortion lobbied heavily to remove the Human Life Amendment plank from the 1996 Republican National Convention platform, a move fiercely resisted by conservatives despite the fact that no such amendment had ever come up for debate.


Since the 1970s, voting has for the most part been perfunctory; the selection of the major parties' nominees have rarely been in doubt, so a single ballot has always been sufficient. Each delegation announces its vote tallies, usually accompanied with some boosterism of their state or territory. The delegation may pass, nominally to retally their delegates' preferences, but often to allow a different delegation to give the leading candidate the honor of casting the majority-making vote.

Before the presidential nomination season actually begins, there is often speculation about whether a single front runner would emerge. If there is no single candidate receiving a majority of delegates at the end of the primary season, a scenario called a brokered convention would result, where a candidate would be selected either at or near the convention, through political horse-trading and lesser candidates compelling their delegates to vote for one of the front runners. The situation is more likely to occur in the Democratic Party, because of its proportional representation system, although such a scenario was suggested for Republicans in 1996 until Bob Dole dominated in actual voting. It is a common scenario in fiction, most recently in an episode of The West Wing. The closest to a brokered convention was at the 1976 Republican National Convention, when neither Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan received enough votes in the primary to lock up the nomination. Since then, candidates have received enough momentum to reach a majority through pledged and bound delegates before the date of the convention.

More recently, a customary practice has been for the losing candidates in the primary season to release their delegates and compel them to vote for the winning nominee as a sign of party unity. Thus, the vote tallied on the floor is unanimous or nearly so. Some delegates may nevertheless choose to vote for their candidate; this occurred in 2004 when Dennis Kucinich received 43 votes and in 2000 when Alan Keyes received six votes.


Minor figures in the party are given the opportunity to address the floor of the convention during the daytime, when only the small audiences of C-SPAN and other cable television outlets are watching. The evening's speeches - designed for broadcast to a large national audience—are reserved for major speeches by notable, respected public figures; the speakers at the 2004 Democratic convention included Ted Kennedy, a forty-year veteran of the United States Senate, and Jimmy Carter, a former Democratic President, while at the Republican convention speakers included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Governor George Pataki of New York, two of the largest states in the nation.

The organizers of the convention may designate one of these speeches as the keynote address, one which above all others is stated to underscore the convention's themes or political goals. For instance, the 1992 Democratic National Convention keynote address was delivered by Georgia Governor Zell Miller, whose stories of an impoverished childhood echoed the economic themes of the nominee, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The 1996 Republican National Convention was keynoted by U.S. Representative Susan Molinari of New York, intended to reassure political moderates about the centrism of the nominee, former Senator Bob Dole.

Uniquely, Miller, by then a Senator, would also be the keynote speaker at the 2004 Republican convention, despite still maintaining his Democratic registration.

The final day of the convention usually features the formal acceptance speeches from the nominees for President and Vice President. Despite the recent controversy, the acceptance speech has always been televised by the networks, because it receives the highest ratings of the convention. In addition, the halls of the convention are packed at this time, with many party loyalists sneaking in. Afterwards, balloons are usually dropped and the delegates celebrate the nomination afterward.


In the early 19th century, members of Congress met within their party caucuses to select their party's nominee. Conflicts between the interests of the Eastern Congressional class and citizens in newer Western states led to the hotly contested 1824 election, in which factions of the Democratic-Republican Party rejected the caucus nominee, William H. Crawford of Georgia, and backed John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson instead.

In 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party convened in Baltimore, Maryland to select a single presidential candidate agreeable to the whole party leadership in the 1832 presidential election. The National Republican Party and the Democratic Party soon followed suit.

Conventions were often heated affairs, playing a vital role in deciding who would be the nominee. The process remained far from democratic or transparent, however. The party convention was a scene of intrigue among political bosses, who appointed and otherwise controlled nearly all of the delegates. Winning a nomination involved intensive negotiations and multiple votes; the 1924 Democratic National Convention required a record 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. The term dark horse candidate was coined at the 1844 Democratic National Convention, at which little-known Tennessee politician James K. Polk emerged as the candidate after the failure of the leading candidates - former President Martin Van Buren and Senator Lewis Cass - to secure the necessary two thirds majority.

A few, mostly Western states adopted primary elections in the late 19th century and during the Progressive Era, but the catalyst for their widespread adoption came during the election of 1968. The Vietnam War energized a large number of supporters of anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, but they had no say in the matter. Vice President Hubert Humphrey—associated with the unpopular administration of Lyndon B. Johnson—did not compete in a single primary, yet controlled enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination. This proved one of several factors behind rioting which broke out at the convention in Chicago.

Media images of the event—angry mobs facing down police—damaged the image of the Democratic Party, which appointed a commission headed by George McGovern to select a new, less controversial method of choosing nominees. The commission settled on the primary election, adopted by the Democratic National Committee in 1968. The Republicans adopted the primary as their preferred method in 1972. Henceforth, candidates would be given convention delegates based on their performance in primaries, and these delegates were bound to vote for their candidate.

As a result, the major party presidential nominating convention has lost almost all of its old drama. The last attempt to release delegates from their candidates came in 1980, when Senator Ted Kennedy sought the votes of delegates held by incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. The last major party convention whose outcome was in doubt was the 1976 Republican National Convention, when former California Governor Ronald Reagan nearly won the nomination away from the incumbent, Gerald Ford.

Televising controversy

While rank and file members had no input in early nominations, they were still drawn by the aura of mystery surrounding the convention, and networks began to broadcast speeches and debates to the general public. NBC affiliate W2XBS in New York City made the first telecast of a national party convention, of the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

With the rise of the direct primary, and in particular with states moving earlier and earlier in the primary calendar since the 1988 election, the nominee has often secured a commanding majority of delegates far in advance of the convention. As such, the convention has become little more than a coronation, a carefully staged campaign event designed to draw public attention and favor to the nominee, with particular attention to television coverage. For instance, speeches by noted and popular party figures are scheduled for the coveted prime time hours, when most people would be watching.

As the drama has left the conventions, and complaints grown that they were scripted and dull pep rallies, viewership—and television network advertising revenue—have fallen off. Midway through the 1996 Republican National Convention, Nightline host Ted Koppel told viewers he was going back home, saying:

There was a time when the national political conventions were news events of such complexity that they required the presence of thousands of journalists ... But not this year ... This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event.

Thus, the networks have increasingly limited their coverage, arguing that those interested can watch the proceedings on a cable network. In 2004, the big three networks devoted three hours of live coverage to each political convention, although there were highlights of speeches during the networks' morning and evening newscasts. However, many journalists still believe that the public should be exposed to political conventions. PBS, of note, continues to provide full prime-time coverage of the political conventions, although it breaks away from minor speakers and mundane business for analysis and discussion.

List of major party conventions

Presidential winner in bold.
Election Democratic Nominee City Republican Nominee City Whig Nominee City
1832 Andrew Jackson Baltimore
1836 Martin van Buren Baltimore
1840 Martin Van Buren Baltimore William Henry Harrison Harrisburg
1844 James K. Polk Baltimore Henry Clay Baltimore
1848 Lewis Cass Baltimore Zachary Taylor Baltimore
1852 Franklin Pierce Baltimore Winfield Scott Baltimore
1856 James Buchanan Cincinnati John C. Frémont Philadelphia Millard Fillmore Baltimore
1860 John C. Breckinridge (Southern) and Stephen Douglas (Northern) Charleston and Baltimore Abraham Lincoln Chicago John Bell Baltimore
1864 George B. McClellan Chicago Abraham Lincoln Chicago
1868 Horatio Seymour New York City Ulysses S. Grant Chicago
1872 Horace Greeley Baltimore Ulysses S. Grant Philadelphia
1876 Samuel J. Tilden St. Louis Rutherford B. Hayes Cincinnati
1880 Winfield S. Hancock Cincinnati James A. Garfield Chicago
1884 Grover Cleveland Chicago James G. Blaine Chicago
1888 Grover Cleveland St. Louis Benjamin Harrison Chicago
1892 Grover Cleveland Chicago Benjamin Harrison Minneapolis
1896 William Jennings Bryan Chicago William McKinley St. Louis
1900 William Jennings Bryan Kansas City William McKinley Philadelphia
1904 Alton B. Parker St. Louis Theodore Roosevelt Chicago
1908 William Jennings Bryan Denver William Howard Taft Chicago
1912 Woodrow Wilson Baltimore William Howard Taft Chicago
1916 Woodrow Wilson St. Louis Charles Evans Hughes New York City
1920 James M. Cox San Francisco Warren G. Harding Chicago
1924 John W. Davis New York City Calvin Coolidge Cleveland
1928 Alfred E. Smith Houston Herbert Hoover Kansas City
1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt Chicago Herbert Hoover Chicago
1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt Philadelphia Alfred Landon Cleveland
1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt Chicago Wendell Willkie Philadelphia
1944 Franklin D. Roosevelt Chicago Thomas Dewey Chicago
1948 Harry S. Truman Philadelphia Thomas Dewey Philadelphia
1952 Adlai Stevenson Chicago Dwight Eisenhower Chicago
1956 Adlai Stevenson Chicago Dwight Eisenhower San Francisco
1960 John F. Kennedy Los Angeles Richard Nixon Chicago
1964 Lyndon B. Johnson Atlantic City Barry Goldwater San Francisco
1968 Hubert Humphrey Chicago Richard Nixon Miami Beach
1972 George McGovern Miami Beach Richard Nixon Miami Beach
1976 Jimmy Carter New York City Gerald Ford Kansas City
1980 Jimmy Carter New York City Ronald Reagan Detroit
1984 Walter Mondale San Francisco Ronald Reagan Dallas
1988 Michael S. Dukakis Atlanta George H.W. Bush New Orleans
1992 Bill Clinton New York City George H.W. Bush Houston
1996 Bill Clinton Chicago Bob Dole San Diego
2000 Al Gore Los Angeles George W. Bush Philadelphia
2004 John Kerry Boston George W. Bush New York City
2008 Barack Obama Denver John McCain |{{Party shading/Republican}} | [[St. Paul, Minnesota|St. Paul]] |} * Presumptive nominee until convention has convened.

List of minor party conventions

Election Constitution Nominee City Green Nominee City Libertarian Nominee City
1972 John Hospers Washington, D.C.
1976 Roger MacBride Washington, D.C.
1980 Ed Clark Washington, D.C.
1984 David Bergland Washington, D.C.
1988 Ron Paul Washington, D.C.
1992 Howard Phillips New Orleans Andre Marrou Washington, D.C.
1996 Howard Phillips San Diego Ralph Nader Los Angeles Harry Browne Washington, D.C.
2000 Howard Phillips St. Louis Ralph Nader Los Angeles Harry Browne Washington, D.C.
2004 Michael Peroutka Valley Forge, PA David Cobb Milwaukee, WI Michael Badnarik Washington, D.C.
2008 Chuck Baldwin Kansas City, MO Cynthia McKinney Chicago, IL Bob Barr Denver


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