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The Elbert Files: Brokered conventions


Des Moines publisher E.T. Meredith is not generally associated with politics, although he was twice considered as a candidate for U.S. president during the 1920s.

The founder of Better Homes and Gardens and Successful Farming magazines was best known for his business acumen, although he did run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1914 and governor of Iowa in 1916.

I learned about Meredith’s political life 17 years ago when I wrote a brief history of a home he owned on 37th Street.

Meredith purchased the home in 1926 from the estate of Henry C. Wallace, another famous Iowa publisher and father of a future vice president. Wallace died in 1924, after serving as U.S. secretary of agriculture under Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding.

Meredith was also secretary of agriculture, in 1920-21 under Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

In 1924, Democrats were determined to win back the White House. Their convention was in New York. Two well-known candidates – Wilson’s son-in-law William McAdoo and New York Gov. Al Smith – were the leading contenders.

Like today, there were many lesser candidates. Nineteen individuals received votes on the first ballot, with 39 percent choosing McAdoo and 22 percent for Smith.

The balloting continued for two weeks with names added and subtracted.

Meredith’s name appeared on the 87th ballot, receiving 26 votes from Iowans and attention from people close to McAdoo. “[S]ome of the prominent McAdoo people were busy attempting to transfer the McAdoo strength to E.T. Meredith of Iowa,” the Des Moines Register reported at the time.

But it wasn’t to be.

On the 103rd ballot, McAdoo and Smith pulled out, and John W. Davis of West Virginia was nominated. After Meredith declined to be Davis’ running mate, the position went to Nebraska Gov. Charles Bryan, brother of populist William Jennings Bryan.

That fall, Republican Coolidge won easily, carrying 35 states with 54 percent of the vote.

In early 1928, Prohibition supporters were grooming Meredith, a teetotaler, to battle Smith, an opponent of Prohibition, for the Democratic nomination. But Meredith, 51, suffered a stroke in April and died.

The 1924 Democratic convention holds the record for number of votes to nominate a presidential candidate.

And while there’s no reason to believe anything quite like that will ever happen again, Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt speculated recently that the 2020 Democratic presidential race could be the first contest to result in a brokered convention since 1952.

To be clear, predictions of brokered political conventions resurface nearly every four years for one party or the other.
But this time, Schmidt might be onto something. He mentioned three reasons 2020 could be different.

One involves the large number of candidates. More than 20 Democrats are in the race today, and new rules in some states eliminate winner-take-all primaries.

Second, the selection cycle is shorter. Normally the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary weed out lesser candidates. But there will be a much shorter window in 2020 between the Iowa caucuses and the end of delegate selection.

In previous years, the process ran into June. But California and other delegate-rich states have moved up their primaries, confining most of the action to February and March.

With a shortened cycle, there will be little incentive to leave the race. Weak candidates can be expected to hang on to see what kind of deal they can cut at the July convention in Milwaukee.

Finally, Schmidt noted, delegates supporting favorite sons or daughters could confound convention voting. The large field of candidates for 2020 is geographically diverse with at least 14 states represented so far.

That was also the situation in 1924, when the 19 candidates on the first ballot represented 17 states. 


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