National Nominating Convention: Definition & Purpose

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

This lesson will define a national nominating convention and explain its purpose. You'll also learn the history of nominating conventions and how their practices have changed up to the present day.

Picking a Presidential Nominee

It's the summer or early fall of election year. You grab the remote and as you're flipping through the cable networks, you stop. What do you see? Speeches. Lots and lots of speeches. Lots of politicians giving speeches. You've just run across a political party's national nominating convention. It might seem like dry stuff, but nominating conventions are important. For many Americans, it's the grand introduction to a political party's candidate for president. Sometimes this is when the vice presidential nominee is chosen, as well. A politician may even give an exciting speech that becomes the talk of the country. We'll take a look at just how national nominating conventions work and how they've changed.

Definition and Purpose

Every four years, the two major political parties, as well as many minor parties, will hold a national nominating convention. The primary purpose of these conventions is to select the party's nominee for president. At the convention, a body of delegates, voting representatives from each state, will cast votes for a nominee until a winner is selected. Afterwards, the presidential candidate will select a vice presidential candidate to be his/her running mate. The convention is also where the statement of the party's principles and goals is adopted, which is called a platform. The proposals and goals that make up the platform are called planks. Once the presidential nominee is selected, the candidate will then give an acceptance speech, a practice popularized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he accepted his party's nomination in 1932.

History of Conventions

Tammany Hall Decorated for 1868 Democratic National Convention
Tammany Hall decorated for Democratic National Convention July 4th, 1868

National nominating conventions have changed since they were first adopted in 1832. In the beginning, the ordinary voter actually had no power to vote for somebody to become the presidential nominee. Instead, power lay with the party bosses, who chose the delegates at the convention. The contest was often settled in meetings of the party bosses, who would discuss possible candidates behind closed doors. These meetings popularized the imagery of 'smoke filled rooms' where decisions are made with no public consent. Often a candidate was chosen after promises and deals had been concluded among the bosses. Still, a presidential pick was often hard to settle on, and conventions could vote dozens of times in heated contests before finally arriving at a choice. For example, President Franklin Pierce would receive his party's nomination only after 49 rounds of voting by the delegates.

Changes in the Conventions

The 1916 Democratic National Convention
1916 Democratic National Convention

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