The Top 10 Political Conventions That Mattered the Most

As the two parties bring together their faithful supporters, we look at those conventions in the past that truly made a difference in the country’s political history

Senator John F. Kennedy delivers his speech before the delegates at the 1960 Democratic Convention. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

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7. 1932 Democratic Convention—No surprise here. As the Great Depression worsened, Democrats were confident that the GOP’s 12-year hold on the White House would end with Herbert Hoover’s defeat. But who would get the nod? New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Governor Al Smith, who lost to Hoover in 1928, were rivals. On the fourth ballot, FDR was anointed, aided by Speaker of the House, Texas’ John Nance Garner who became his vice president.

FDR signaled a new era in American politics when he became the first candidate to address the convention, held in Chicago. In his acceptance speech, he promised America a “New Deal.”

In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to address a convention in Chicago –also notable for giving FDR his third consecutive nomination and an unprecedented third term.

8. 1960 Democratic Convention—There was nothing new about television at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. The first televised convention had been Philadelphia’s Republican gathering in 1940—but a lot more people had television sets 20 years later. And what they saw was America’s first great made for-television candidate, John F. Kennedy, deliver an acceptance speech promising a “New Frontier” echoing FDR’s “New Deal.” And the presidential game would never be the same. A few months later, the first televised debates against Republican Richard Nixon cemented TV’s place in the American political landscape.

9. 1968 Democratic Convention—Television also played a huge role when the Democrats met in Chicago. But it was mostly about what was happening outside the hall. The nation watched the spectacle of anti-war protestors in full battle with Chicago policemen. One Democratic Senator told the convention there were, “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” The convention selected Hubert Humphrey, who lost a close race to Richard Nixon. But the violent debacle in Chicago led to the first wave of primary reforms that chipped away at the power of the convention.

This convention also marked the last time that Chicago, which had hosted more conventions than any other city, would welcome a convention until the Democrats returned in 1996 to nominate Bill Clinton for a second term.

10. 1976 Republican Convention—This may have been the last hurrah for the national convention as a meaningful political battlefield. The incumbent President, Gerald Ford had succeeded to the office after Richard Nixon’s resignation. The only president never elected president or vice president, Ford faced a furious challenge from the right from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford held onto the nomination in Kansas City, but lost the election to Jimmy Carter. And Ronald Reagan was probably thinking, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don’t Know Much About® History and Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents, which will be published on September 18. His website is

© 2012 Kenneth C. Davis

Editor's note: This story originally mistakenly referred to Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, as an anarchist. This was not the case and we regret the error.


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