The Emergence of President Warren Harding
A century ago, the race for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination was wide open. The early frontrunner, Theodore Roosevelt, passed away in 1919. The Republican nominee in 1916, Charles Hughes, took himself out of the running. The party itself was bitterly divided: a progressive movement preached government intervention while a conservative movement seeked to constrain it; reservationists supported the U.S. acceding to the League of Nations with proper amendments added while irreconcilables refused to support acceding to the League under any circumstances.
Entering the 1920 Republican Convention, the nomination was up in the air. In these days, only 16 states held a public primary election and those that did had contests that were considered “beauty contests” that showcased candidates while most delegates remained unbound to their result. As a result, party insiders were forced to compromise among themselves as they sought to reach a consensus over the course of the convention.
Such brokered conventions used multiple rounds of voting until one candidate secured a delegate majority. These multiple ballots allowed delegates to re-align their support when they saw their preferred candidate was not viable, as candidates vigorously competed to be delegates’ second and third choices at the convention.
As multiple ballots at the 1920 Republican convention wore on, delegates remained split between two front-runners, General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, who were both deeply unpalatable to the progressive and conservative factions respectively. Other delegates, drawn away from all front-runners, continued to support “favorite-son” candidates from their home state. After eight ballots, the convention went into recess without a clear impending outcome.
In this recess, the team supported Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding kicked into gear to convince convention delegates that to break the deadlock, Harding would be a suitable consensus candidate that could appeal to most elements of the party while having a strong chance to assure its victory in November.
Harding had a combination of traits that made him a good candidate to win support at a deadlocked convention: he was perceived as electable based on his relationship to the key swing state of Ohio, his platform built on a “return to normalcy” was fit for the political moment given the unpopularity of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and trying times at home and abroad, and he was a unifier having not alienated the supporters of other candidates.
In a hotel room that would later be coined the original “smoke-filled room,” party leaders agreed to back Harding. On the ninth ballot, Harding took the lead. By the tenth ballot, he clinched the nomination with the support of more than two-thirds of delegates.
Four months later, Harding trounced his opponent, Democratic nominee James Cox, to be elected America’s 29th President. Harding’s victory was a landslide — his popular vote margin was the largest in a century and he carried every state outside of the South.
Unifying The Party at Brokered Conventions
In his biography of President Harding, Josh Dean wrote, “No historical distortion has persisted longer than the notion that Warren Harding was an accidental president, a fluke selected by a cabal of Senate colleagues in a smoke-filled room when the 1920 Chicago convention deadlocked.” This narrative is a distortion because Harding’s nomination was no accident — it was a product of America’s convention system and (in Dean’s words) Harding’s “carefully calculated campaign for the nomination” that enabled him to compete for the second and third choice votes of delegates on successive ballots.
Indeed, Harding followed in the path of fellow Ohioans Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield, both of whom were also able to unify the Republican party to win its presidential nomination at brokered conventions. This is no coincidence as the path to the nomination for all three presidents involved convincing the party of their electability, based in part on the strategic nature of their home-state. As a result, the compromise forced by deadlocked brokered conventions often led parties to agree on more electable nominees. Indeed, FairVote’s review of multiple-ballot conventions found that 57 percent of come-from-behind winners at contested conventions went on to win the presidency.
The presidential nomination process is not just about selecting a nominee that can win the White House. Presidential nominees, and eventually presidents, can have an enduring impact on parties through their effect on party platforms and down-ballot races. Parties have an interest in selecting candidates, then, that can well represent the interests of party members and elites rather than polarizing candidates that may only hold the support of a narrow plurality of the party.
The brokered conventions of the past ensured that the nominee elected needed majority support, forcing them to broader ranges of geographic and partisan interests. Abraham Lincoln, for example, grew his support from one-fifth of delegates and a distant second place in the first ballot of the 1860 Republican Convention to three-fourths in the third. Lincoln forged this consensus based on his political acumen, the great appeal of his ideological stances, and his perceived electability in the Western states that ultimately proved critical to his victory in the general election.
In this sense, the brokered conventions of the past placed a great emphasis on majority support, ensuring the nominee was acceptable to broader coalitions within the party. Polarizing nominees, then, found it difficult to triumph under these rules, ensuring that changing the direction of the party required a consensus. Woodrow Wilson was able to win the 1912 Democratic nomination on the 46th ballot, for example, as a compromise candidate over frontrunner Champ Clark, who was seen as too closely associated with a corrupt political machine.
The Modern Presidential Nomination Process
The reforms of the presidential nominating process in the 1970s democratized the process, ensuring that states hold public primaries and that delegates be bound to the results of those primaries. As a result, the times in which the delegates themselves determined nominees in smoke-filled rooms at conventions is long past. No convention has required more than one ballot since 1952 and the outcome of nominating conventions is now a foregone conclusion.
While this democratization ensures great public participation, it is also now far easier for polarizing candidates to win a party’s nomination without majority support in that party. Many states in the Republican primary process, for example, have “winner-take-all” rules that ensure the plurality winner attains all of the delegates from that state or its congressional districts. In Democratic primaries, delegate thresholds set at 15 percent ensure that the delegates are split up among fewer candidates, allowing a frontrunner to rack up delegates without attaining majority support.
In the case of the 2016 Republican nomination of Donald Trump, for example, Trump did not earn majority support in any of the first 33 states to vote but still won around half of those states’ combined delegates. In this way, Trump never had to truly expand beyond his base to win the nomination.
Some scholars wish to solve this quagmire by returning to the days of brokered conventions and smoke filled rooms to determine the party’s nominee by the consensus of its elites. Such a solution, though, would deny the will of party voters, who surely should have a say in who takes the mantle of their party and, ultimately, the nation itself. Such brokered conventions also require long rounds of voting in successive ballots, creating an inefficient process that can drag on for days and add further stress to parties and voters.
The solution is ranked choice voting (RCV), which would allow modern political parties to “crowd-source” a consensus to efficiently pick their best presidential nominee. With a ranked choice voting ballot in tandem with party rules for allocating delegates, voters would have a chance to express both their first choice and later preferences to be their nominee with an “instant-runoff” occurring to narrow down the candidates.
Under this process, candidates would have to compete outside of their base of support and build broader coalitions of voters by appealing to voters’ second and third choice votes in order to win primaries. Indeed, polling data and simulations confirm that polarizing nominees like Trump in 2016 would have struggled with RCV if they did not branch out and make inroads with the supporters of other candidates— that is, it’s not just about who wins but also how they win.
With RCV, voters would no longer have to vote “strategically” by selecting the candidate they felt was most viable to win the primary and could instead express their true preference. Candidates in the same ideological “lane” would no longer siphon votes and delegates from one another. The winning candidate would have to represent the true voice of the party’s members, rather than just a narrow slice.
If parties want to look to the future to reform their nominating processes, they also need to look to the past. Ranked choice voting offers the best chance at combining the compromise forged by past nominating conventions with the modern democratization of the process. If parties want to pick their strongest and most representative presidential candidate in 2024, it’s time for them to rank the vote.
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Note: Benjamin Oestericher is a co-author of a forthcoming article accepted by Politics and Governance for publication in June which analyzes ranked choice voting in presidential primaries in more depth.