political convention

From The New Book of Knowledge

Political conventions are meetings held by political parties. Parties select their leaders at conventions. They also decide on party programs. And they organize for election campaigns.

In the United States, conventions are held at state and local levels. Parties hold national conventions every four years. These meetings name party candidates for president and vice president.

The first national convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831. The National Republican (later Whig) Party held a convention in 1832. Delegates nominated Henry Clay for president. The Democratic Party also held a convention that year. It nominated Andrew Jackson for president.


The main business of national conventions is choosing national candidates. Traditionally, state delegations bargained over the choice. Sometimes many ballots were cast with no winner. Then a "dark horse" (unknown) candidate might be put forward. Warren G. Harding became the Republican nominee this way in 1920. Ten major politicians met in a "smoke-filled room" and settled on him. John W. Davis was named the 1924 Democratic candidate after 103 ballots.

Today the party's presidential choice is generally settled before the convention. And most delegates arrive pledged to support him or her.

The vice presidential candidate is named on the last day of the convention. Presidential candidates usually pick their running mates. They consult with other party leaders. (The last open contest for a vice presidential nomination was at the 1956 Democratic convention.)


State primary elections select most delegates to the national conventions. Voters cast ballots for delegates pledged to certain candidates. They have a chance to show their preferences. Primaries have become more important in recent times. But some states choose delegates in caucuses (party meetings).

Most states do not require delegates to vote for the candidate they pledged to support. But delegates rarely change their vote unless their candidate leaves the race.

The parties’ national committees set guidelines for convention delegates. The Democratic Party has two types of delegates. There are pledged delegates, chosen in primaries. And there are superdelegates. Superdelegates are mostly party leaders. They include former presidents and members of Congress. They are not pledged to any candidate.

Convention delegates were once mainly older white males. Today they include more women, young people, and minority groups. To win a national election, a party’s appeal must be broad. The candidate must win votes from diverse groups.


Party conventions have other major functions. They are the party's main forum for deciding on its platform. The platform is a statement of what the party stands for. It sets out positions on major issues. If the party wins, the platform is supposed to guide the elected officials.

Great issues of American history have been debated at party conventions. The Republican convention took a stand against slavery in 1856. The Democrats debated civil rights in 1948 and the Vietnam War in 1968.

Conventions get a lot of media attention. Thus they provide an opportunity for campaigning. And they are used to discuss and set party rules. Such rules govern the selection of delegates and other matters. State conventions normally focus on platforms and party rules. Candidates for state offices are usually chosen in direct primaries.
election central
Meet the Candidates

Find out more about the candidates in the running.


Election Timeline

What are some of the key dates in Election 2012?


Election Vocabulary

Learn key terms used in the electoral process.


Background From Grolier

Get in-depth election information from The New Book of Knowledge.