Sorry to have missed everyone last week. Work got the best of me and then I decided to use the time to make some technical updates to the website. Unfortunately, emails are still going out from "Texas Plenty", rather than "Alex Karjeker". That seems to be a problem with Ghost, the online publishing software I'm using. Hopefully they'll sort it out in the next major update.

But for now, let's talk party conventions.

A quick history

If you heard about the Democratic National Convention last week, you probably heard about the speeches by Michelle Obama or Senator Bernie Sanders. Party conventions nowadays are mostly about the big name speeches but they didn't always used to be this way.

Before the start of the modern Presidential nominating process (1972), it wasn't obvious who the Presidential nominees would be at the start of the national conventions. In fact, the whole purpose of the convention was to choose the nominee, set the party platform and priorities, and coordinate on national political strategy.

It can be hard to imagine a time when communication wasn't as easy as it is today, but in order to make a decision on who should be the nominee, the party delegates had to actually gather in a central location.

The 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago (source)

Who were these people that got to decide the party nominee?

While it varied state by state, the process typically started at the local level. Party regulars would show up to local meetings and vote on delegates to go to the state convention. Because it wasn't always clear who would be running for President - candidates might pop up at the last minute - the regulars voted for people they knew would take their local issues seriously. For example, workers tended to pick union leaders and farmers tended to pick other farmers.

At the state conventions, the delegates would go through the same process again and choose another set of delegates to send to the national convention.

Once at the national convention, delegates would nominate candidates for the Presidency. Then the voting would start. If no candidate got enough votes, the convention would break and different groups would begin negotiating back and forth over whose votes were up for grabs and at what cost. State delegations would often be divided.

It wasn't uncommon for there to be multiple rounds of voting - especially since the Democratic Party used to require a 2/3rd majority. The higher threshold was in place to give Southern states extra veto power.

Intermixed between the official party business, delegates and party leaders would work together on crafting the party platform and the political strategy for the November election. Different party leaders would give speeches and rally their supporters. And people would just have a good time.

Primaries and caucuses after 1972

An example of a caucus (source)

Starting in 1972, the Democratic Party established the Presidential nominating process we're all familiar with today. States would have official primary contests and delegates would have to vote for the nominees decided by the primary election. A few states like Iowa, kept their caucus system, and some, like Texas had a mixed system.

During my first primary in 2008, I learned how the "Texas Two Step" worked:

  1. First, on March 4 from 7am to 7pm, the Texas Democratic Party would hold the primary election. Anyone who wanted, and who pledged to not vote in any other party primary, could vote for any of the qualified candidates.
  2. Then, after the polls closed, neighborhood caucuses were open for Democratic Primary voters to come back. They would then get to vote on delegates to the "Senate District" convention. Those delegates in turn would vote on delegates to the State convention and then ultimately, delegates to the National convention.

Two thirds of the Texas national delegates were "pledged" to the results of the primary election. The other third were "at-large" delegates and were based on the delegates that actually showed up to the caucus.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the Texas Democratic primary, so she get more pledged delegates than Barack Obama. However, Barack Obama got more people to turn out to the caucus, so he ended up getting more at-large delegates than Clinton did. Net-net, Obama walked away from Texas with more delegates than Clinton did.

My first convention

In 2008, I decided to try to become a pledged national delegate for Barack Obama.

After the Primary ended, I showed up to the caucus and got my fellow delegates to elect me as a delegate to the "Senate District" level. A few weeks later, I convinced the District level delegates to send me to the State Convention. At the State Convention, Senate District 11 received four National Delegate positions. Because our Senate District had voted about 50% for Clinton and 50% for Obama, they each got two pledged delegates. And because Party rules required gender parity, there was only one male Obama delegate position.

Senate District 11 contained the southeast portion of Harris County, all of Galveston County, and part of Brazoria County.

This is the current map, but the 2008 map was pretty similar.

That spring, I drove back to Houston on the weekends and went to Democratic Party events in Angleton, Pearland, Alvin, Friendswood, League City, and Clear Lake. I built a website and signed letters to the other delegates asking for their votes. Like 2016, 2008 was a contentious primary year. We weren't sure how the process would go and I worked hard to convince my fellow delegates that I would fight to make sure Barack Obama was the nominee.

At the May State convention in Austin, I made it to the runoff out of eight candidates and then won the runoff. The rest as they say is history.

You never forget your first convention.

The New Ballgame

Though the 2008 nominating process was contentious, ultimately, there were no shenanigans and Barack Obama became the nominee. Even in 2016, we could see that the delegates weren't really choosing the nominee like in FDR's time. That meant more and more of the media coverage became about the speeches, and less about whether the different geographic parts of the Democratic Party could agree on a nominee.

An unfortunate side effect has been that we sometimes lose track of the geographic diversity of the Party. Remember, each delegate did something like I did to get to the national convention. We represent distinct places.

That's why, if there's anything you decide to watch from this convention, you should watch the roll call.

Because of COVID, instead of having suited elected officials casting votes for their home states from a convention floor, we got to see the real people behind the Democratic Party in each state.

It was a really nice throwback to that earlier time and to the truth that the Democratic Party isn't just one group or another - we're different people in different states all over the country. A Big Tent coalition that, to be honest, doesn't always agree with each other on everything.

But that's ok - there's nothing more American than that.

I hope you found this informative. If you have any questions or any feedback, shoot me an email at [email protected]