How Do Political Parties Decide Which Convention Goes First?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 27 2012 7:06 PM

Who Decides Which Party Goes First?

Do the Republican and Democratic National Conventions draw straws?

Republican National Convention, 1920.
Republican National Convention, 1920.

Moffett Studio/Kaufmann & Fabry Co./Library of Congress.

In baseball, the home team always bats last. In football, the visiting team gets to call the coin toss. In basketball, they jump for first possession of the ball.  But what about the American political system? What decides whether the Republican or Democratic National Convention goes first in an election year?

For now, incumbency. There’s no hard-and-fast rule governing the convention calendar, but since 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower held office, the party in control of the White House has traditionally gone second. Between 1864 and 1952, the Democrats routinely followed the Republicans. The one exception was in 1888, when POTUS Grover Cleveland’s Democratic Party preceded the GOP, which would nominate Benjamin Harrison. Before that, starting with the two parties’ first nominating conventions in 1832, it was a bit of a toss-up.

Political parties, which go unmentioned in the Constitution, began to crystallize around the turn of the 19th century. At first a party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees were selected by a Congressional caucus, but over time, as the United States expanded, party members who didn’t hold seats in Congress wanted to be involved in the choice. The Anti-Masonic Party was the first to stage a convention, in 1831, followed a year later by the Democrats and National Republicans. (The modern Republican Party grew out of the Whig Party in 1854.)*

While a party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees tend to be a foregone conclusion going into a modern convention, this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1950s, delegates didn’t know who their final nominee would be until a “rolling roll call of the states” yielded a candidate with the required two-thirds majority. Not only were delegates far more divided in terms of which nominees they arrived supporting, but they were also permitted to switch their votes during the convention if a different presidential hopeful made an especially persuasive case. Back-room dealing and shady negotiation played a substantial role in the process. In fact, it wasn’t until 1968, when Democrats fully embraced the primary system (thereby committing delegates to vote for the winner of the state primary), and 1972, when Republicans jumped on the bandwagon, that conventions became the utterly predictable and bloodless ceremonies they are today.

*Correction, Aug. 28, 2012: This article originally stated that the Republican Party staged its first convention in 1832. It was the National Republican Party.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 23 2014 9:01 AM Tristan Da Cunha: Life on the World's Most Remote Island
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:46 AM How Men Talk About Relationships in Rom-Coms: While Playing Sports
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 7:00 AM I Stand with Emma Watson
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.