Conventional Wisdom by Chairman Joe

imageA prominent businessman, formerly a Democrat, becomes a leading candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination with great public support but the nearly universal enmity of the Republican political establishment. The party regulars, while comprising a majority of the convention delegates, are unable to agree on a candidate, keeping their forces divided. The Chairman of the convention, the newly elected leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives was himself being mentioned as a compromise candidate.

Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan in 2016? Nope, it’s Wendell Willkie and House Republican Leader, Massachusetts Congressman Joseph W. Martin in 1940.

As the Republicans careen toward a truly contested convention, which could take more than one ballot to nominate a candidate for the first time in nearly 70 years, there are no contemporary politicians or operatives with actual experience on working within them. Gradually the conventions have evolved from contested events making important decisions to highly scripted infomercials, ratifying decisions already made, which became so boring that the major television networks first reduced gavel-to-gavel coverage to a nightly summary and coverage of main events and then ceased live coverage altogether, leaving it pretty much to the ubiquitous cable news networks.

The candidates and pundits would all do well to consult with Joe Martin, the last man to conduct a multi-ballot convention, in fact the only man in either party ever to be Permanent Chairman of five national party conventions. Three of the conventions he chaired were seriously contested and in two of those, the front-runner in delegates arriving at the convention did not ultimately win the nomination.

Joseph W. Martin of North Attleboro and Wareham was a Republican Congressman for 42 years, 20 of them as Republican leader and four of those as Speaker of the House. He was the Chairman of the Republican Conventions in 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952 and 1956. He remained a major national figure until he lost his leadership position to Congressman Charles A. Halleck in 1959. He remained in his beloved House of Representatives until he was beaten in a Republican primary by Margaret Heckler in 1966. He died in 1967,

His observations on political conventions are contained in three chapters of his memoir “My First Fifty Years in Politics” by Joe Martin as told to Robert J. Donovan, Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Herald Tribune. The book is not in print or in a Kindle version but used copies abound and it may be found in most libraries. Martin’s papers are kept at The Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College, led by its knowledgeable Director, Dr. Peter Ubertaccio.

Apart from it’s tales of the contested conventions, Martin’s book is an enjoyable and informative narrative of a half century of politics on Capitol Hill in Washington and at the state level in Massachusetts, filled with interesting anecdotes, and well worth a read.

Here are a few lessons gleaned from the book’s account of those conventions:

  1. Front-runners don’t always win. It takes a majority.
  2. It’s all about momentum. If you’re the front-runner your numbers must go up on each ballot, if they go down, they keep going down.
  3. Strategy on procedural roll calls is crucial
  4. Outside public opinion remains influential even after the convention begins.

              1. Front-runners don’t always win. It takes a majority. One does not have to go back to the Republican nomination of Lincoln to find a candidate who had the most votes, Senator William H. Seward of New York with 173.5 of the 233 needed for a majority, who lost on the third ballot.

In the 1940 Republican Convention, Martin’s first as Chairman, New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey started with the most delegate votes, 360 of 548 needed for a majority, while Senator Robert H. Taft of Ohio, a favorite of party regulars and conservatives had 189, Wendell Willkie, a New York businessman and former Democrat with no political experience had 105 and Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, 76. Even Chairman Martin received 44 votes. Wilkie won on the sixth ballot.

In 1952 Senator Taft, running now for the third time, arrived at the convention with more delegates than his chief opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Additionally “Favorite Son” delegations were held by Governors Earl Warren of California and Harold Stassen of Minnesota. The nomination did not fall easily into the lap of the smiling Eisenhower. His managers brilliantly manipulated public opinion (as Willkie had in 1940) and adroitly managed procedural challenges which replaced Taft delegates from three states with Eisenhower delegates, giving the General his majority.

Of course in a contested convention, the leader sometimes wins, even if he has no majority to start with. In 1948 Dewey, then Governor, ran for the third time, again coming to the convention with a plurality of delegates. As Dewey had gotten the nomination in 1944 but lost to President Roosevelt in November, several candidates and many delegates wanted a change. Dewey could have been stopped but the men who could have stopped him, Senators Taft and Vandenberg and Governor Harold E. Stassen, each persisted in seeking the nomination for themselves and could not get together.

This time Dewey increased his plurality on the second ballot to within 33 votes of a majority and won on the third ballot. The front-runner can’t be stopped if no one else steps aside (or gets pushed).

The most useful thing in a contest where no one has a majority is to be the second choice of as many delegates as possible. This not only may provide a candidate a majority in later ballots, but also provides allies on early procedural votes which can determine the final outcome. Intuition and some polling among voters suggest that the polarizing campaign that got Donald Trump his plurality also makes him the second choice of practically no one.

              2. It’s all about momentum. The front-runner’s numbers must rise on each ballot. If they go down, they keep going down. In that 1940 convention Dewey dropped votes on every ballot. Taft and Willkie gained votes on each ballot but Willkie gained them faster, passing Taft for second place on the third ballot and moving into the lead on the fourth but still short of a majority. Dewey’s votes dropped to 57 on the fifth ballot before Willkie was nominated on the sixth.

On the other hand, in 1948 Dewey, now New York Governor, again came to the convention with the most delegates, garnering on the first ballot 434 of the 548 needed for a majority while Senator Taft, his strongest opponent, had 224 and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, 157. On the second ballot Stassen lost votes, and Taft increased to 274. However, Dewey picked up even more delegates, increasing his vote to 515, only 33 shy of a majority, which he gained on the third ballot. This was the last major party convention in history to require more than one ballot for a presidential nomination – so far.

In 2016 most delegates were selected by state party organizations and are bound by rules to vote for primary winners in their states only on the first and in some cases the second ballot. Thus Donald Trump’s support seems certain to drop precipitously, if he does not win on the first ballot. Senator Ted Cruz seems likely to lose some of his votes on the second ballot for the same reason but may pick up a lot of former Trump votes. Cruz, by all accounts has been working assiduously to collect delegates selected in conventions as in Colorado and woo free agent delegates already selected.

              3. Strategy on procedural roll call votes is critical. In the fifth ballot in 1940 Willkie had developed a large lead but was still short of a majority. Anti-Willkie forces, including candidates Taft, Vandenberg and Dewey, wanted an adjournment to agree on a candidate but Chairman Martin had already instructed delegates to be ready for the sixth ballot and felt bound by the rules not to consider an adjournment. Stubborn individual ambition, lack of earlier coordination and failure to move more promptly on a motion for adjournment ended the party establishment’s effort to stop Willkie.


In 1948 after Dewey drew within 33 votes of a majority his campaign wanted an immediate third ballot to capitalize on their obvious momentum. Anti-Dewey forces moved for a dinner recess to give them a chance to regroup. Martin called for a voice vote on the motion. He ruled that the “ayes” had it, although he considered it a close call and the Dewey campaign could have demanded a roll call on the issue.

In what Martin considered one of the smartest tactical moves he has seen in his many conventions, a Dewey manager approached and said they would accept his ruling. It would have been in Dewey’s advantage to have an immediate third ballot. As Martin notes, however, the outcome of the vote was uncertain. The voice vote was close and delegates’ appetites for dinner were as much a factor as political leanings. Dewey’s momentum might well have been broken, had he lost a roll call on the recess. As it happened, the delegates came back after dinner and nominated Dewey on the third ballot.

In 1952 Senator Taft made his third run for the nomination against General Dwight Eisenhower. The two arrived at the convention with Taft slightly ahead in delegates. However, Taft’s lead included delegates selected by vestigial Republican Parties in Louisiana, George and Texas which existed primarily to distribute federal patronage in what was then the Democratic “Solid South.” Insurgent groups of Republicans in those states selected alternate delegations but Taft controlled the Republican National Committee which had approved his slates. Eisenhower managers managed to portray the dispute as the “Fair Play Amendment” and forced a preliminary roll call on the question of whether the delegates from those states should be allowed to vote on their own contested credentials.

Eisenhower won that vote and a later vote seating his delegates, when Senator Richard Nixon persuaded the California delegation, committed to Governor Earl Warren’s candidacy, to vote with Eisenhower on the procedural issue. The replacement southern delegates gave Eisenhower the nomination. Warren regarded Nixon’s actions as a double-cross. 16 years later Chief Justice Warren resigned as Chief Justice in 1968 during the last year of the term of Lyndon B. Johnson, rather than let the appointment go to the likely next President – Richard Nixon.

This year Trump and Cruz cannot rely on “their” delegates’ votes in earlier procedural ballots. These may well include a vote amending Rule 40B, limiting the persons who can be nominated. Trump and Cruz do not want the rule changed. “Their” delegates may well vote otherwise.

              4. Outside public opinion remains influential even after the convention begins. In 1940 Willkie supporters packed the galleries and continually chanted their vocal support. (Note to Trump and Cruz: check to see who’s getting those tickets.) Others deluged the delegates with pro-Willkie telegrams.

Eisenhower supporters used public pressure to force the Convention Credentials Committee to admit television cameras into the Credentials Committee hearings where the case was being made that the contested southern Taft delegates were “stolen.” That coverage only increased the public’s insistence on the delegates for Eisenhower. An excellent report on these efforts is J.W. Friedman, “Judge Wisdom and the 1952 Republican National Convention: Ensuring Victory for Eisenhower and a Two-Party System for Louisiana,” 53 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 33 (1996)

Cell phones, emails, text messages and social media have replaced the telegrams of 1940 and the television coverage of 1952. They will connect this year’s delegates to the folks back home as never before. The delegates are Republicans, elected officials of state and federal government and those who work year round, every year to advance the party on state, county and town committees. They are accountable to select a nominee who can win and serve creditably as President.

And another factor, the delegates lose the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and their hotel rooms after a week. Political junkies, keep your schedule clear for July 18-21.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. says:

    Fascinating. You are so erudite.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Kathryn Hand says:

    Your writing is compelling, and this was an education. How you get eating, sleeping, and Opening Day managed while writing pieces like this, I cannot imagine.



    1. I use the time I would have spent writing about Rule 60


  3. Paul Mahoney says:

    Do you know anything about pitching?
    Paul Mahoney


  4. Laurie Toner says:

    Brian- Thanks for this article. I’m going to call it a birthday present and with that,I thank you.


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