Thursday, April 14, 2016

The 1940 Republican Convention: Lessons Learned by Some, but Not by Others

While we witness the wrangling of republican delegates--a murky business at best--one which involves Byzantine tactics, wild bets on the come, and even death threats, perhaps it is time to look back in history to see if we can catch a glimpse of the near future.

In 1940 there were four serious candidates for the GOP nomination. A bright young star, Thomas E. Dewey was the early odds on favorite. He was facing Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, plus a political chameleon named Wendell Willkie who was from New York.

The nominating process was considerably different 76 years ago. There were only a handful of state primaries back then and, as Wikipedia points out, the results of the contests were considered not much more than non-binding straw polls. So much so, Wendell Willkie refused to waste his time with them and didn't enter a single one, while Dewey didn't bother to run in Taft's home state.

The vast majority of delegates were selected by an arcane series of precinct caucuses, then county and state conventions, rather like what we just saw in Colorado. Willkie, who had been a registered democrat until 1939 and previously voted for Franklin Roosevelt, worked the system like a pro. Even so, his pledged delegates arrived at the convention in Philadelphia as decided underdogs.

Things were a mess though, leaving the door open to just about anyone. The situation was convoluted enough that Wikipedia reports even former president, Herbert Hoover showed up and gave a speech the second day, hoping to steal the nomination for himself. However, some suspiciously convenient electrical malfunctions caused the sound system to fail as Hoover gave his address and it was largely unheard by the majority of delegates.

During the nominating speeches, Indiana Congressman, Charles Halleck confronted Willkie's recent political conversion by asking delegates, "Is the republican party a closed corporation? Do you have to be born into it?"

The next night, July 27th, Dewey, a New York City prosecutor, took a hit. He was convinced he had secured 400 delegates of the 501 needed to win. On the first ballot he got 360, while Taft received 189. Willkie wound up with 105 and Vandenberg totaled 76.

Meanwhile there were some other shady goings on. The head of, "The Committee of Arrangements," was a Willkie supporter named, Sam Pryor. He was in charge of handing out tickets to the public galleries. He severely limited ticket allocations to people in favor of other candidates and handed out scads of them to fellow Willkie advocates. They spent most of the next few hours chanting, "We want Willkie" over and over. The sheer volume of their noise drowned out not only the supporters of Taft and Dewey, but the assembled delegates--so much so it sounded like everyone in the entire GOP world was behind their man.

On the second ballot, Dewey's ship began to take on serious water. His total dropped to 338 while Taft's rose to 203 and Willkie's hit 171. Vandenberg, at the moment, appeared to became a non-factor, because by then, he was holding onto precious few delegates outside of Michigan. It was obvious, as they say, the worm was turning. Willkie's people were in a frenzy as they pleaded their candidate's case on the convention floor.

By the time the fifth ballot rolled around, Dewey was done. His vote count was down to 57. Taft received 377 and Willkie had surged to 429.

Suddenly, Senator Vandenberg's remaining delegates began to look pretty darn important. After some promises regarding judicial appointments were made, Vandenberg released his delegates and the majority of them threw their support to Willkie before the sixth ballot. In addition, much of the Pennsylvania delegation switched their votes to Brother Willkie. A little after midnight on what was by then the 28th of July, he sewed up the nomination.

Most theories about the rise of Wendell Willkie have to do with the year of the convention. As it was being held, Herr Hitler was running amok in Europe. Willkie's opponents were, in varying degrees, isolationists, who opposed American intervention in a second European war. Willkie, on the other hand, was a realist who supported eventual American involvement.

The isolationist wing of the party, a hopelessly idealistic and naïve bunch, was so disillusioned by both his nomination and Roosevelt, Wikipedia says there was serious talk about mounting a third party effort with Charles Lindbergh heading the ticket. In the end nothing came of it.

In November, Willkie won only 10 of the then 48 states. Eight of them were located in the upper Midwest and two were in northern New England.

Four years later Dewey won the nomination on the first ballot. He also lost to Roosevelt, winning 12 states, 10 of them again in the upper Midwest and west, plus Vermont and Maine. Willkie's support had dwindled dramatically by then and he dropped out of the race before the republican convention. He died a month before that year's general election.

So there we have it. A different era certainly, but one containing lessons learned by two of the current republican candidates, while the third hasn't a clue.

Given what is going on right now, is anyone really surprised?

I didn't think so.


1 comment:

  1. Jesus said, "The poor shall always be with us." He did not add, probably because he did not wish to depress us, that "Gerrymandering in all its forms shall always be with us." I think if anything good comes from the 2016 brawl we refer to as the election season, we are learning that, as the consumer and his/her wishes are the last things considered in business and commerce, the voter and his/her wishes are the last things considered in politics. Another double please, Mr. Howard, and this time make it with 128 proof Jack Single Barrel.