The Democratic National Convention

Democratic candidates for president and vice president are chosen at the annual convention. Learn who casts the ballots and how this centuries old institution works.
Hillary Clinton Speech at Democratic National Convention – July 28, 2016. (Maggie Hallahan)

Hillary Clinton Speech at Democratic National Convention – July 28, 2016. (Maggie Hallahan)

What is the Democratic National Convention?

Every four years the Democratic Party convenes a national convention to nominate and confirm a candidate for president and vice president of the United States. The first Democratic convention took place in 1832. In the modern political era the successful candidate is usually well established prior to the convention and the event signifies the conclusion of the primary season. The convention serves as the general election kickoff and provides Democrats a made-for-TV opportunity to define their platform and unify the party.

How Does The Convention Work?

Enthusiastic delegates flood a chosen venue for a multi-day spectacle filled with political speeches, musical entertainment, an address by the winning nominee and a “Roll Call of the States”. Meetings, voting, and platform discussions generally occur during the day while significant speeches addressed to the entire convention take place in the evening. The final day of the convention usually includes balloting, the nomination of the candidate, and her/his acceptance speech.

A winning candidate achieves the nomination by being awarded a simple majority of state delegates. In 2020, it’s estimated that there will be 4,532 delegates representing all 50 states as well as the territories of the US Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Washington D.C. A “delegates abroad” category represents American citizens living overseas.

Just under 4,000 delegates are pledged while approximately 764 superdelegates are unpledged. Pledged delegates, chosen during party conventions, primary elections or caucuses must articulate a preferred candidate or an “uncommitted preference”.

There are three types of pledged delegates; district, at-large and PLEO. District delegates are allocated and elected at the state legislative or congressional district levels. At-large delegates are elected statewide. PLEO delegates are chosen from elected officeholders and from party leadership ranks.

Pledged delegates are chosen well before the convention. States hold caucuses or primaries from February to June of the election year. The first caucus of the season is held in Iowa. All registered Democrats are invited to attend the caucus meetings in their congressional precinct where they choose delegates representing their favorite candidates. Delegates are awarded based on vote tallies. In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders by the closest vote in the Iowa caucuses history, 48.8% to 49.6%. Clinton received 700.47 state delegates while Sanders received 696.62. The win provided Clinton 23 pledged delegates to the National Convention while Sanders received 21.

In that same year, Sanders defeated Clinton at the New Hampshire primary, the first primary contest of the season. Primary contests are similar to elections. Voters cast secret ballots. The Granite State awarded Sanders 15 pledged delegates to the National Convention while Clinton took nine.

Superdelegates represent just 15% of total delegates at the convention and include elected members of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Governors and Democratic members of Congress. Notable party leaders like former Democratic presidents and vice presidents are often included.

The method of voting at the convention, the Roll Call of the States, affords delegates an opportunity to cast a verbal ballot while bragging about their state’s history or geography. States are called in alphabetical order. A delegation spokesperson may either announce the state’s allocation of delegates or pass. States that opt to pass are called upon again to announce awarded delegates once all other states have declared or passed. Decisions to pass during the first round are generally predetermined to afford a particular state, usually the presidential nominee’s state, the opportunity to push the vote count over the top and declare the winner.

If a particular candidate receives a majority vote in this first round of voting they win the nomination. If not, the ballot is contested and another round of voting will follow.

Contested conventions are rare occurrences in the modern era. They were far more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as were brokered conventions when backroom deals were often negotiated.

The Democratic National Committee instituted a new rule for the 2020 convention that prohibits superdelegates from voting in the first ballot. Superdelegates only get a vote if the convention is contested.

During the 2016 primary season, when several superdelegates openly supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders earlier in the primary season, many believed that the process was unfair, with the scales tipped in Clinton’s favor.

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When is 2020 Democratic National Convention and where is it being held?

Milwaukee will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention from July 13-16 at Fiserv Forum, the home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. The convention is expected to attract 50,000 visitors and $200 million in revenue. City officials expect over 400 busses transporting delegates to and fro.

Milwaukee won the convention after being selected from a shortlist of finalists including Denver, Houston and Miami Beach. Once considered a safe Democratic stronghold, Hillary Clinton lost the state of Wisconsin in the 2016 election by just 22,748 votes or 0.77%. During the last 100 days of the campaign, Clinton didn’t visit the state at all while Donald Trump stopped by Wisconsin six times. Hoping to win back an imperative voting block Tom Perez, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, said, “the Democratic Party is the party of working people, and Milwaukee is a city of working people. We saw in this last election what we can accomplish when we come together, invest, and fight for working people, and that was proven right here in Wisconsin.”

How Is The Democratic National Convention Different From The Republican National Convention?

In structure and process and the Democratic and Republican conventions aren’t as dissimilar as one might expect. Both have evolved over the decades and, at times, co-opted successful ideas and concepts. Nonetheless, there are some significant differences.

The Democrats have over 4,000 delegates while Republicans have 2,500. Superdelegates make up about seven percent of the Republican voting delegation while they make up 16% for Democrats. Republican superdelegates are also bound. They must vote for the candidate who won their state’s primary. Democratic superdelegates can vote for any candidate they choose.

Democrats utilize a proportional system to allocate delegates. As long as a candidate wins at least 15% of a state primary or caucus vote, she/he will receive a share of pledged delegates. Republicans give states a lot more freedom. Some states use a winner take all system while others use a proportional system. Other states employ both.

Republican conventions tend to have a business-like feel. They’re often well ordered. Donald Trump called the classical Republican format “boring” in 2016 and promised to shake it up. The Democratic convention tends to be a bit looser. Although meticulously planned, spontaneity is encouraged.

Republicans have been having conventions since 1856 while Democrats have been at it since 1832.

History Of The Democratic National Convention And Past Winners

Early in the nation’s history, presidential and vice-presidential candidates were nominated by an often chaotic Congressional Nominating Caucus. US Congressmen would choose the nominees.

By 1824, the system collapsed and the idea of a national convention was born. Inspired by supporters of President Andrew Jackson, Democrats held the first Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1832. At the time a ⅔ rule was enacted to show party unity. A candidate would need to receive a ⅔ vote for the nomination. With few exceptions, the rule remained on the books for a century.

A supermajority vote was often hard to come by and brokered conventions were common. Multiple rounds of voting and backroom deal-making efforts resulted in dragged out, arduous conventions, most famously in 1860. The convention, held in Charleston lingered on for ten days, reconvened in Baltimore twice and nominated two presidential candidates. The ⅔ rule was abolished in 1924. A simple majority winner helped stabilize the process. The last brokered convention occurred in 1952 and the last contested convention took place over four decades ago.

Today’s conventions are more about the ratification of a candidate than choosing one. Presidential nominees are usually selected well before the convention. The last vice presidential nominee to be chosen and announced at a convention occurred in 1976. It’s in the best interest of the party to show a united front heading into the general election. Current Democratic conventions are all about party unity and well-publicized, positive spectacle.

Dating back to the 1960’s the winners include:

  • 1960 – John Kennedy
  • 1964 – Lyndon Johnson
  • 1968 – Hubert Humphrey
  • 1972 – George McGovern
  • 1976 – Jimmy Carter
  • 1980 – Jimmy Carter
  • 1984 – Walter Mondale
  • 1988 – Michael Dukakis
  • 1992- Bill Clinton
  • 1996 – Bill Clinton
  • 2000 – Al Gore
  • 2004 – John Kerry
  • 2008 – Barack Obama
  • 2012 – Barack Obama
  • 2016 – Hillary Clinton

The Rantt Rundown

The Democratic National Convention is an annual event as well an ever-evolving institution. Originally envisioned as a fairer, more definitive effort to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates, today’s convention also serves as a formal introduction to the candidates for the nation. Tomorrow’s convention will certainly grow, change and progress to meet the changing needs of an always fluid Democratic party.

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Rantt 101 // Democratic National Convention / Democratic Party / Elections