How Political Conventions Work

History of Political Conventions

Gov. Chris Christie, RNC
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers the keynote address during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, 2012. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Despite the reluctance of the early leaders of the United States to accept political parties, two had sprung up within a few decades of the country's founding. These initial parties were loosely defined, and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when they came into being. By the late 1790s, however, the parties were becoming more organized and taking a greater role in American politics.

From 1796 to 1824, candidates for presidential elections were chosen by congressional caucuses — that is, the members of Congress for a given party gathered together and decided whom to nominate for the presidential election. The electoral college system was then used to choose the president from among the candidates.


The caucus system began to break down because the American people felt that it took too much power out of their hands. In 1816 and 1820, they were right. The Federalist Party had collapsed, leaving only one political party — the Democratic-Republican Party (this party is not related in any way to the Democrats and Republicans of today). As a result, whoever was nominated by the Democratic-Republican caucus would be guaranteed to win the presidency. James Monroe won in 1816, and was similarly unopposed in 1820. Americans protested the caucus system around the nation.

That period of single-party rule not only led to political conventions, but also created the feeling that a two-party system was crucial to American politics. During the transition period, after the death of caucuses but before conventions were instituted, state legislatures nominated presidential candidates.

Ironically, the first political convention was held by a third party, the Anti-Mason Party, in 1831. Soon after, the National Republicans and the Democrats also began holding conventions. In these early days, the conventions were often held as much as a year prior to the election because transportation was so difficult. For this same reason, they were usually held in centrally located cities. Baltimore held most of the early conventions, while Chicago became the most popular host after the Civil War.

Today, presidential primaries have made the conventions unnecessary for practical purposes. They exist primarily as a marketing tool and a political pep rally, where each party puts on a well-choreographed show. For more information on political conventions and related topics, check out the links that follow.

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