MENTOR, Ohio — Political pundits, left, right and center are asking what would happen if the Democrats fail to select a candidate this spring, and go to the August convention in Denver still very divided.
Occasionally someone asks, “Has anything like this happened before?”
Yes, in the spring of 1880, the Republicans were as divided as the Democratic party is today. In 1880, the Republican party had no clear leader.
Rutherford Hayes, R-Ohio, was president, but his term in office was tainted by the bitter battle that put him there. He had announced that he would not seek re-election.
U.S. Grant, R-Ill., had been president before Hayes. He left office after two terms under a cloud of scandal. But he had just returned from a triumphal world tour and was anxious to return to the White House for a third term as president.
Unfortunately for Grant and his supporters, a lot of Republicans remembered the corruption of his presidency. Many opposed a third term for any president, although it was allowed by the Constitution then.
So when the Republicans held their convention in Chicago in early June 1880, Grant was supported by the largest bloc of delegates. But he did not have enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.
The “anybody but Grant” Republicans were led by James G. Blaine, R-Maine, secretary of the treasury and former speaker of the house.
A smaller group, led by Congressman James A. Garfield, supported Ohio Sen. John Sherman. Several “favorite son” candidates were also nominated. But the anti-Grant faction could not muster a majority for any one of those candidates.
Until the second half of the 20th century, nominating conventions actually did choose each party’s candidate. Delegates were elected at district and state conventions, and often were required to vote as instructed by the state party on the first ballot.
After that, delegates were free to change their vote. That’s when the wheeling and dealing began.
At the 1880 Republican convention, 379 votes were needed to secure the nomination. On the first ballot, U. S. Grant got 304 votes, Blaine had 284, Sherman received 93. The chairman of the convention announced that no one had received the number of votes needed to nominate, and asked the clerk to call the roll for the second ballot.
By the end of the first day of voting the clerk had called the roll 28 times and there was almost no change in the tally — Grant had 307 votes, Blaine 279 on the 28th ballot. The voting continued the next day.
On ballot No. 34, at the end of the roll call of states, Wisconsin announced two votes for Grant, two for Blaine and 16 votes for James A. Garfield of Ohio. Everyone at the convention knew Garfield. He had served in the House of Representatives for eight terms and was Ohio’s senator-elect.
Although he had confessed to his diary that he “dislike[d] the antagonism and controversies” of political maneuvering, Garfield was recognized by all the delegates as a party leader and perhaps the best orator in the nation. He had given the nominating speech for John Sherman a few days earlier.
He was not a candidate for president. But on the 35th ballot, Blaine signaled that Maine, and all his supporters, should vote for Garfield. In the longest nominating process in the history of the Republican Party, James Garfield won the nomination with 399 votes. Grant had 306 votes on the last ballot.
A delegate declared, “It was the escape of a tired convention.”
Obviously, the Grant supporters were bitterly disappointed. They had remained firmly committed to their candidate through every ballot. Some delegates accused Garfield of disloyalty to Sherman, for whom he had been a delegate.
A Blaine supporter said, “We have not got the man we came up hoping to nominate but we have got a man in whom we have the greatest and most profound confidence.”
Garfield had not actively sought the nomination, and he wasn’t the first choice of any delegate, but most recognized his capacity to unite the party for the fall campaign.
As his first step toward re-establishing party unity, the stunned victor selected a Grant supporter, Chester A. Arthur of New York, as his running-mate.
The 1880 Republicans did have a few advantages that the Democrats might not have this year. The convention was in June, so there was plenty of time to work on reunification.
In fact, what had divided the Republicans was a question of power and patronage, not policy. And the Republicans of 1880 were able to turn to a well-respected and skilled candidate as their compromise choice.
It seems now that the two strongest candidates the Democrats have available to them in 2008, are Sens. Clinton and Obama. But if no conclusion is reached by June, the stalemated party could begin to look for a third person to carry their banner, someone unscarred by the battles of the spring.
But they should be warned that the 1880 Republican party never completely healed the wounds inflicted at their convention. The Garfield-Arthur ticket did win in November in the closest election in terms of popular votes the nation has seen.
A disgruntled Grant supporter then assassinated Garfield in the summer of 1881, and Chester Arthur limped through the remainder of the term without any significant accomplishments.
In the 47th Congress (1881-1883), the Republicans held only a small majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate was tied. They were able to gain a majority in the Senate, but lost control of the House in the 48th Congress (1883-1885).
Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected the 22nd president in 1884. He is the only Democrat to have won the White House between 1861 and 1913. So the 1880 nomination battle certainly wounded the Republicans politically — a lesson today’s Democrats might want to remember.