When Political Conventions Go Wild: 4 Knock-Down, Drag-Out Convention Floor Fights


by Brendan Spiegel

1. The Convention Turned Klanbake

For Americans accustomed to today’s tame, scripted political conventions, the 1924 Democratic Convention went down more like a taping of The Jerry Springer Show. On one side was New York Governor Al Smith, supported by urban, Catholic voters who favored his efforts to repeal prohibition. On the other side was former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, who drew the rural, Protestant, anti-alcohol supporters—a contingent that included the Ku Klux Klan.

A powerful political force at the time, the Klan had vowed to defeat the Catholic Smith. As politicians on both sides made speeches on the convention floor, hooded Klansmen standing outside burned a cross and defaced effigies of Smith. When a group of outraged delegates motioned to officially condemn the Klan for its actions, the convention plunged into chaos, with pro- and anti-Klan delegates shouting each other off the podium and breaking into noisy parades. Eventually, police had to be called in to restore order. The Klan measure failed by just one vote, but that was only a prelude to the nomination fight.

The delegates voted a record 103 times, with neither Smith nor McAdoo able to secure a majority. After 16 turbulent days, both candidates agreed to step aside, and the party settled on another nominee—former Solicitor General John Davis.

2. The Southerners Stage a Walk-Out

The 1860 Democratic Convention was a civil war all its own. Southern Democrats faced off with their Northern counterparts, demanding that the party endorse a federal slavery code. When neither side budged, the debate digressed into a convention-wide shouting match. “The house was in an uproar,” noted one reporter, with “a hundred delegates upon the floor and up on chairs, screaming like panthers and gesticulating like monkeys.” When it finally appeared that the Northerners had enough votes to kill the slavery platform, the Southerners responded by walking out.

Without enough delegates left to nominate Stephen Douglas (or anyone else), the convention had to be abandoned. Seven weeks later, the Northern Democrats reconvened to nominate Douglas, while the irate walk-outs held their own convention to nominate pro-slavery candidate John C. Breckinridge. With two Democrats on the ballot that year, Republican Abraham Lincoln strode to an easy victory. But the convention dust never quite settled, and much of the South seceded from the union before Lincoln’s inauguration.

3. Teddy Roosevelt’s Temper Tantrum

Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909, passing the torch to fellow Republican William Taft. But Roosevelt regretted his endorsement after he soured on Taft’s conservative, pro-business policies, and he became determined to regain his seat in office. Taking on his fellow Republican, Roosevelt and his progressive-wing followers waged a reform campaign that trounced Taft in the primaries. But Taft, who controlled the Republican National Committee, stacked the convention with his own delegates. An incensed Roosevelt attended the convention in person (not customary at the time) and delivered a blistering speech in which he called Taft a thief and declared, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” When the delegates backed Taft, Roosevelt bolted from the GOP altogether and ran as a third-party candidate. In the end, both men were defeated by Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

4. The Accidental President

When delegates gathered at the 1880 Republican Convention, they had to choose between the party’s three primary front-runners. Instead, they picked someone who didn’t even want the job. For a while, it looked like a battle between Ulysses S. Grant, who was running for reelection after leaving office for a term, and Maine Senator James G. Blaine. The third candidate, John Sherman, was notoriously uncharismatic and didn’t stand a chance. But his biggest supporter, Senator James A. Garfield, was quite the opposite.

After a full day of voting, it became clear that neither Grant nor Blaine could win, so the delegates searched for a compromise candidate. Uninspired by Sherman, they rallied around his messenger. Even as Garfield continued to pledge his support for Sherman and tried to remove his own name from contention, he was awarded the nomination on the 36th ballot. Upon his victory, a reporter described Garfield as “pale as death” and “half-unconscious.” He went on to win the presidency.