09/10/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

For Convention Junkies: The Flawed Past and Perilous Future

Gene Demby/Huffington Post

While speculation about the bounce Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will receive from their parties' respective conventions underscores the uniqueness and, in some ways, the odd beauty of American democracy, a closer look at past Republican and Democratic conventions reveals a significant flaw in the history of our democratic process and a continuing peril: brokered conventions in the event no candidate garners a majority of delegates in the primaries and caucuses.

From 1830 through the middle of the last century, the leverage applied by power brokers at national conventions regularly altered the course of American history. In one of many examples, the direction of the country immediately following World War I was indelibly influenced by the kingmakers at the 1920 Republican convention who, in the proverbial smoke-filled room, anointed compromise candidate Warren Harding as their party's standard-bearer. Harding, whose principal qualification for national office was a presidential visage, underperformed meager expectations. Other dark-horse candidates, including Presidents Polk (after whom that term was coined) and Garfield, had not sought the presidency prior to the conventions at which they were nominated.

On more than one occasion, the spectacle of unregulated contention for the nomination spilled onto to the convention floor, as it did at the 1924 Democratic convention, which required 103 ballots over more than two weeks to break the deadlock, with the governors of Colorado and Kentucky engaging in fisticuffs before bewildered delegates. Hostilities have spilled into the streets, as well, as anyone around in 1968 recalls.

Sometimes, however, as with other mutant processes, the results of brokered conventions have been fortuitous. The debacle of the 1860 Democratic Convention serves as an example, where southern delegates reacted to an insufficiently sympathetic plank on slavery by nominating an alternative candidate who siphoned off just enough votes from Democratic nominee Stephen Douglas to result in the election of the Republican candidate: Abraham Lincoln. Another example may be the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago, where Joseph Kennedy, the ultimate power behind the throne of presidential politics, successfully prevailed upon one of Franklin Roosevelt's two rivals in a close contest for the nomination to withdraw from the race and throw his support to FDR. Absent the Kennedy patriarch's arm-twisting, the course of the war, and the world today, may have been radically different.

Even so, a tidier procedure for the quadrennial selection of presidential candidates is in order. The modern reforms of the delegate-selection process, however, do not assure a fair and orderly process. Indeed, the specter of candidates and party bosses hijacking the democratic selection of their party's presidential nominee is alive and well. All that's required to replay the seamy past is -- as last occurred with the Democrats in 1952 and the Republicans in 1948, and almost happened again with the Democrats in '76 and the GOP in '84 -- for no candidate to win a majority of delegates.

Following inconclusive balloting, many of the convention delegates of both parties -- most of whom are bound by party rules to vote initially for the primary or caucus winner -- are freed to vote their particular preferences. Then voila -- the horse-trading and arm-twisting begin.

As with most calamities-in-waiting, of course, nothing will be done to eliminate brokered conventions until the next Warren Harding.