The possibility of a contested Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016 sent reporters and politicians to the history books, looking for similar nominating battles from the past.
Eventually, they all found the astonishing 1924 Democratic convention in New York City.
It’s the longest convention in American history — it took more than two weeks and 103 ballots to find a nominee. The miserable battle was caused in part by a deep and dramatic split between urban Democrats, who opposed Prohibition, and rural Democrats, who supported it.
Oh. The Ku Klux Klan was an issue too.
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But the main reason for the delay may have been the now-curious rules of the gathering, which required a two-thirds vote to approve any nominee. The two-thirds rule had been a fixture of most political conventions to that point, but had rarely been a difficult hurdle.
The two main competitors included New York Gov. Al Smith, a favorite of the urban faction of the party. Californian William McAdoo represented rural interests and was popular: He had won several newfangled “primaries,” where delegates were chosen by voters, not party power brokers.
But many delegates were worried about McAdoo, the former Treasury secretary. He was tainted with scandal after leaving office and had refused to repudiate the Klan, which vaguely backed the candidate.
That left Smith, a Catholic — then an issue — as well as John Davis, a West Virginian and an overseas ambassador for President Woodrow Wilson. Each came to New York prepared to do battle.
The voting started on a Monday, June 30. McAdoo led the voting, collecting nearly 40 percent of the delegates, and Smith was close behind. But 17 other candidates — including Jonathan Davis, the Democratic (!) governor of Kansas — received votes.
The delegates voted again. Most of the delegates refused to budge, and McAdoo won again. But he fell short of the number needed to claim the prize.
Rinse and repeat.
“Each ballot began with the cry of Alabama — ‘24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood,’ ” historian Sexson Humphreys wrote more than a decade later.
“As the ballots were taken, the totals were very nearly the same on each test: more than five hundred votes for McAdoo, more than three hundred for Smith, but more than seven hundred necessary to nominate,” he wrote. “Neither side would yield. Compromise after compromise was proposed.”
An aging Williams Jennings Bryan, the populist favorite of Democrats and a three-time presidential nominee, appealed for a breakthrough. Delegates shouted him down. Smith said he would withdraw if McAdoo would. No deal. After 69 votes, the Californian still led the voting.
Deals were cut. Jobs were offered. Arms were twisted. Smith could be vice president on the McAdoo ticket. Still nothing.
Favorite sons moved up and down the leader board, suggesting a possible solution. The radio, still a new invention, broadcast the events to those who could afford a receiver.
But the stalemate lingered. Someone finally proposed dropping the two-thirds requirement, but the rules change failed — it, too, needed approval from two-thirds of the delegates. Finally, an exasperated Oklahoma delegate suggested adjourning the convention and reconvening in Kansas City on July 21. A change of scenery, he said, might do everyone some good.
It was not a popular option. Eighty-two delegates said yes. One thousand seven said no.
The logjam was finally broken on the 103rd ballot, when McAdoo released his delegates and Smith withdrew. On July 9, delegates nominated John Davis, the West Virginian, not the Kansan. The Sunflower State’s governor had dropped from the running days earlier.
The exhausted Democrats returned home badly split and still angry. Liberals coalesced around Robert LaFollette, the Progressive Party nominee. For all their work, Davis never had a chance.
President Calvin Coolidge, who had assumed office in 1923 after the death of Warren Harding, was elected for a full term. Republicans would hold the White House until 1932, when the Great Depression helped make Franklin Roosevelt president.