What’s different about modern conventions?

When the Indiana Republican and Democratic parties meet this weekend and next, respectively, for biennial state conventions, the main attraction of each will be the selection of candidates for secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer. Then again, these may only be main attractions in the nominal sense as both parties have unopposed slates and will likely endorse their top-of-the-ticket standard bears by acclimation.

But whether we’re talking about the mid-term year conventions that select the three constitutional offices, or the gubernatorial year conventions that select the statutory offices of attorney general and superintendent of public instruction (the latter will happen only once more before being removed from the ballot), uncontested races have become more or less the norm. Exhibit A: I suspect that most readers didn’t realize I omitted the lieutenant governor as a convention-selected candidate, because in practice it has become merely the ratified choice of the primary election-selected gubernatorial candidate (and no longer occupies its own ballot spot in November, to boot).

Of course, it’s no secret that modern convention politics lack the drama of a bygone era. In order to generate more enthusiasm around the events, Indiana Democrats now market their conventions as “Big Dem Weekends” and have moved their annual fundraising dinner to the first night to attract donors and others who might not otherwise serve as delegates. Meanwhile, Republicans now hold their mid-term conventions outside of Indianapolis to create more of a destination getaway feel around them, and to give regional delegations reason to become fully invested in the festivities.

But while we might never again see the high stakes drama of, say, an Edgar Whitcomb-Otis Bowen convention floor battle for governor like we had in 1968, spirited contests do emerge (ask our last two attorneys general or our current treasurer). Even then, however, the expectation of modern convention delegates is that the selection process will be over quickly, which is why punditry (and even strategy) around contested elections revolves around who can keep which delegates from heading home early.

So, while modern conventions lack the intensity of their historical counterparts, perhaps the greater difference is the sheer number of responsibilities granted to convention delegates. Regardless of the year, modern state conventions will adopt a party platform and select exactly three candidates. In gubernatorial years, they also elect national convention delegates and presidential electors.

Contrast this with the reality of 100 years ago. At the 1918 Indiana Republican Party convention, delegates selected candidates for secretary of state, auditor and treasurer, just as they will do this year. But they also selected candidates for attorney general and superintendent of public instruction, offices which came with two-year terms at the time.

Perhaps a bit ironically, all five offices that year were unopposed contests on the GOP side, but that didn’t mean the convention lacked drama. That’s because there were contested races for clerk of the Supreme Court and state geologist, both of which were statewide elected offices at the time. (Two years prior, delegates also had to elect the state statistician and the reporter of the Appellate Court, also offices that are no longer elected.)

The state geologist race had an added layer of drama that year because the Republican Party platform included a new plank calling for removal of the position from the ballot. Indiana University professor Lewis F. Rourke would ultimately win the GOP convention battle, then lose to Democrat incumbent Edward T. Barrett in the fall election. But Rourke got the last laugh: The Republican-controlled legislature followed through on the platform promise the next year, making it an appointed position, with the requirement that the appointee must be a staff or faculty member of Indiana University through what’s now known as the Indiana Geological and Water Survey (though it doesn’t appear Rourke was ever appointed to the post, IU is still statutorily obligated to carry out the functions of the office on behalf of the state).

In addition to choosing more than twice as many executive branch candidates as today, convention delegates a century ago also chose judicial candidates. In 1918, Republicans nearly had a contest for 1st District of the Supreme Court that was avoided when a rumored second candidate was not nominated. They had only one candidate for the 2nd District of the Appellate Court, but delegates had to select two of three candidates for spots on the 1st District of the Appellate Court.

Over the next 50 years, various reforms would limit the number of candidates selected at conventions. The same 1919 law that removed the state geologist from the ballot also removed the state statistician. Judicial reforms that began in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s would take judges off the ballot in favor of the current Judicial Nominating Commission (and would eventually remove the reporter and clerk spots from the ballot). Around the same time, Hoosier voters passed constitutional amendments that extended term lengths for the executive offices from two to four years, reducing the number of candidates selected every two years; they required gubernatorial candidates to be nominated in a primary election; and they removed the office of lieutenant governor from its own ballot slot.

It’s easy to claim that conventions have largely become humdrum, stage-managed affairs because a small group of party leaders conspires to control the selection of candidates as much as possible.

But such a claim misses the obvious fact that various governmental reforms, made in the name of democracy, government efficiency or both, have limited the number of offices chosen by the broader electorate and, by extension, convention delegates. A hundred years ago, a dozen or more contests could be sent to the convention floor each year; today, there could never be more than three. With the horse race intrigue of conventions largely neutered by such reforms, party leaders on both sides probably deserve more credit than derision for creatively trying to make the convention process relevant and appealing to broader audiences. After all, whether there is drama over the next two weekends or not, the selection of candidates and the adoption of party platforms necessarily shapes the future governmental decisions that will impact the lives of all Hoosiers.

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