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Learn the history behind today’s Political Conventions

All eyes will be on Cleveland and Philadelphia during the next two weeks as Republicans and Democrats meet to officially nominate their candidates for president.


It’s hard to imagine a time before political conventions – for many it’s hard to image a time before this election! – but the conventions we know today weren’t always the norm.

In the era before political conventions, presidential candidates were selected by Congressional caucuses or state legislatures.

The desire for a more democratic process coincided with a growing distrust among some Americans of the two established political parties, the Democrats and the National-Republicans. The result was the creation of the first third party – the Anti-Masons – which hosted the first political convention in American history.

On September 25, 1831, delegates met in Baltimore, Maryland, and chose William Wirt, a former attorney general, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats and the National-Republicans must have liked what they saw from this third party because just a few months after the Anti-Masons met, both parties held their own conventions.

Even as conventions continued to meet every four years to elect their nominee, it was considered improper for a candidate to appear at the convention and stump for their nomination.

That changed in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first person to accept the nomination in person. Roosevelt entered the convention as one of several favorites, but it took four ballots before he secured the nomination.

With the country reeling from the onslaught of the Great Depression, Roosevelt felt a public appearance could offer a boost to both his party and the nation. He flew to Chicago and delivered his acceptance speech, establishing a tradition that continues today – and will happen again on the next two Thursdays.

Presidential Convention Trivia:

  • Chicago has hosted 25 presidential conventions since its first convention in 1860 – more than any other city.
  • Transportation was the major factor in determining which city would host the presidential conventions. Baltimore, an easily-accessible port city, hosted 10 of the first 11 national gatherings, including all three of the conventions held before the 1832 election.
  • The transcontinental railway system made traveling to Midwestern locations possible, and made places like St. Louis and Kansas City popular options.
  • National political conventions were covered on radio for the first time in 1924; they were covered on television for the first time in 1948
  • The Democratic convention in New York in 1924 was the longest in history: 17 days
  • The Democratic convention in Baltimore in 1872 was the shortest in history: 6 hours
  • In 1964, Maine Sen Margaret Chase Smith was placed in nomination for the presidency at the Republican convention, marking the first time a woman’s name was placed in nomination by a major political party. She won 27 votes.
  • In 1940, although President Franklin Roosevelt had not publicly indicated that he would seek reelection, he won the first ballot with only 13 delegates opposing him. He became the first president to be nominated for a third term.


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