Toward the Modern Era, 1968-1980

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James King on the 1968 DNC in Chicago.
Riots at Democratic Convention Chicago in 1968.
Michael Goldman on the modern convention era.
President Reagan: Speech at the Republican National Convention, August 19, 1976.

Everything changed after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the time, America was deeply divided over many social issues and, most importantly, the Vietnam War.  Younger, more liberal Democrats led the anti-war movement, while older members of the party supported the military action.  Many protesters came to Chicago during the convention to express their frustration about the war and those who supported it.  Riots erupted, and the Chicago police’s harsh tactics escalated the conflict.  Meanwhile, inside the convention hall, the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey as their nominee, after a similar and slightly less violent debate.

Later that year, the Republican Party (GOP) convened in Miami and chose Richard Nixon as its nominee. Mindful of the chaos that plagued the Democrats in Chicago, the GOP ran a tightly orchestrated affair that reflected Nixon’s desire for a return to “Law and Order” for the country. Moving forward, conventions sought to emulate the Republican 1968 convention and avoid the troubles that plagued their Democratic counterparts.

Although conventions in the modern era often appeared as choreographed pageants that pandered to the television audience, the late twentieth century conventions still had their fair share of excitement. For example, in 1976 Governor Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Reagan represented a conservative, populist push that sought to shift the GOP away from the moderate Ford, who many Republicans viewed as too liberal to lead. Reagan won enough states to pose a significant threat to Ford, and neither man secured the number of delegates needed to win the nomination before the convention. On the convention floor, Reagan’s allies attempted a rule change that would have forced President Ford to reveal the identity of his running mate before the delegates cast their ballots. When the measure failed, Ford quickly wrapped up the nomination, but lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter.

The next major convention battle occurred four years later at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. The man Ford had eventually lost to, Jimmy Carter, was up against a primary battle of his own. Edward M. Kennedy challenged President Carter for the Democratic nomination.  Kennedy channeled Democratic frustration with Carter’s foreign and domestic policy record. Despite a slow start, Kennedy won several states, but not enough to beat Carter, who had a mathematically insurmountable lead by the time of the convention. Kennedy refused to concede the nomination until the last day, when he gave a now famous speech  embracing the liberal cause. 1980 would prove to be the last time either party saw an officially contested convention.