Op-Ed

Spoiler alert: 2016 melee a lot like 1860

Foster Ockerman Jr.
Foster Ockerman Jr.

The developments of the current presidential campaign, with persistent outsider candidates refusing to leave, favored establishment candidates finding impediments in the road to a nomination, the prospect of brokered conventions, all lead to a search for similar periods in our history.

The presidential nomination process of 1860 reveals some interesting parallels. We all know the result: Abraham Lincoln is elected president; but how did the country get there?

For starters, there were no primaries. It was well known that the conventions would be brokered. In fact, it was expected deals would be made in the pursuit of the nomination. Lincoln famously wrote warning his managers not to make any binding commitments (even though they did).

While the Democratic Party traced, and still traces, its roots to Thomas Jefferson, the Republican Party was only six years old in 1860, about the age of the present Tea Party.

Instead of trying to take over the party from within, the first Republicans were drawn from anti-slavery Democrats, remnants of Henry Clay’s Whig Party, some surviving Know Nothings and others. When it was time to nominate candidates, the Republicans controlled almost all of the northern state offices as they do today in southern states.

There was an “establishment” candidate favored by party leadership — William H. Seward of New York. Lincoln was viewed as a prairie state lawmaker and the “western” candidate who would receive a courtesy nomination as a favorite son on the first ballot and then quickly disappear.

Only 233 votes were needed to secure the Republican nomination and the New York delegation alone numbered 70, so Seward was one-third there at the start. Illinois only had 22 votes. To ensure a large, favorable crowd in the new auditorium in Chicago, Seward sent his managers, supporters and a marching band in a 13-car special train. The plan was for his crowd to march behind the trumpeting band into the hall for a dramatic entrance and sweep the convention.

There was one problem. When the band reached the front doors it was discovered that Lincoln and his team had printed hundreds of counterfeit admission tickets and handed them out to supporters who filled the place. There was no room.

Several men, including Seward and Lincoln, were nominated on the first ballot and received mostly home-state votes, although a “stop Seward” movement was starting among New Englanders. Lincoln’s supporters roared each time votes in his favor were announced, drowning out the Seward voices. The first ballot total was: Seward 173, Lincoln 102, the others 50 or fewer.

On the second ballot, Seward held firm but Lincoln picked up the votes of candidates who dropped out. Vermont broke first, shifting its 10 votes to Lincoln. Pennsylvania increased its Lincoln votes from four to 48. The second ballot ended up 184 to 181 in Seward’s favor. Seward began to lose votes and the third ballot ended with Lincoln at 231, only a couple of votes fewer than needed. Then Ohio’s delegation leader announced a change of four votes to Lincoln.

It was done; the establishment candidate had lost.

The Democrats were in terrible shape with slavery and trade issues creating a great division. The convention met in Charleston, S.C., with Stephen Douglas of Illinois the front-runner. However, his support for popular sovereignty (allowing each state to decide whether to permit slavery) was not popular with southern delegates. In the end, the southern delegates marched out before nominations were even made.

The northern branch of the Democrats later met in Baltimore and did nominate Douglas. The southern branch met in Richmond, Va., and nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge from Lexington.

Should Donald Trump walk into this year’s Republican convention with the most delegates but not a majority, and the establishment-led “stop Trump” effort succeed in coming together behind someone, denying Trump the nomination, will he split the party and run as an independent?

The Constitutional Union Party, comprised mostly of leftover Whigs, nominated John Bell to make it a four-candidate field. (In a real spoiler role, Bell would carry Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.) Lincoln carried the northern states and California, Douglas only carried Missouri, and Breckinridge carried the southern states plus Maryland and Delaware.

In the end, Lincoln won 39.9 percent of the popular vote, the most of any candidate; when the Electoral College votes from those states were tallied, he had 60 percent of the votes needed for election. In other words, a candidate was elected president without a majority of the popular vote.

Breckinridge was second to Lincoln in popular votes but behind Douglas in electoral votes. In another interesting parallel, while running for president Breckinridge evidently hedged his bets with the Kentucky legislature, which at the time elected U.S. senators. He was elected to the Senate, effectively running for two offices at the same time like current Sen. Rand Paul.

Under present party rules, delegates are only bound on the first ballot and are free to change their votes on later ballots. As with Seward, a candidate with the most delegates but not a majority can fall to another candidate as the ballots progress.

Also, several Republican candidates have “suspended” their campaigns; but they haven’t formally quit and endorsed another — meaning they are available for a draft movement. Finally, someone doesn’t have to be a formal candidate when the convention opens to eventually be the compromise nominee, someone like Mitt Romney.

So, let’s party like it’s 1860. This summer’s conventions could be interesting.

Foster Ockerman Jr. is a Lexington historian and author of “Historic Lexington.”

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