The Last Contested Convention Was Probably Before You Were Born

Don't look now, but things could get very, very strange real soon. The country is right in the thick of the presidential primary season, and, on the Republican side at least, it's looking like it's building to a thunderous and rare climax: a contested convention in Cleveland in July. Much of the GOP establishment openly hates its front-runner, and he doesn't have a lock on a delegate majority just yet. And if it happens, it'll make for a rare sight ― the last contested political convention was a long time ago.

There have been a slew of near-misses throughout the years, times when the tumult of a contested convention (or as it is called when a better face is being put on things, an open convention) loomed large, but were ultimately averted. But the last time that a convention's nominating process actually went beyond the first ballot, freeing up all the pledged delegates to wheel, deal, and vote however they pleased, came in 1952.

Back then, it was the Democrats whose nomination was under heavy uncertainty, not the Republicans. While the GOP ticket was solidly affirmed on the first ballot ― it was General Dwight D. Eisenhower at the top of the ticket, with then-California governor Richard Nixon as vice president ― it ended up taking the Democrats three rounds of voting to make their pick, owing to incumbent president Harry Truman's decision not to run for reelection.

It wasn't ultimately the same person who led the field on the first ballot, either. As Lily Rothman and Heather Jones detailed for Time earlier this week, the leading vote-getter on the first ballot of the 1952 Democratic convention was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, heading a field also consisting of Senator Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia, former Secretary of Commerce W. Averall Harriman, Vice President Alben Barkley, Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, and the eventual nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.

While Kefauver prevailed on the first ballot, edging out Stevenson by 67 votes at 340 delegates to 273, things started to shift from the second ballot on ― support for Kerr cratered from 65 votes to just 5.5, Kefauver picked up another 22.5, and Stevenson narrowed the gap between himself and Kefauver to just 36.

By the time the third ballot came around, the ground gave out from under Kefauver, and Harriman (who had commanded just more than 120 votes the first two ballots) completely collapsed, in both cases to the direct benefit of Stevenson. The Illinois governor and Democratic icon won the nomination after claiming 617.2 votes on the third ballot, just inching past the 615.5 threshold for victory. He would team up with Alabama senator John J. Sparkman to ultimately lose the 1952 general election, to the Republican Eisenhower/Nixon ticket.

Needless to say, there's a world of difference in the circumstances facing the Democrats in 1952 and the Republicans today. In the first place, the Democrats were the incumbent party back then, while the Republicans haven't sniffed the White House over the last eight years.

Also, the fraught nature of any contested convention aside, the level of anxiety and backlash that Trump's candidacy is causing the GOP is a whole different animal from how Democrats back then felt about, say, Stevenson vs. Kefauver ― either man was a reliable and capable choice for the party, while Trump threatens to rip apart the GOP coalition. In fact, there's a case to be made that he already has, no matter what else happens, although if he holds a plurality of the delegates heading into the convention and doesn't get the nomination, things figure to get even worse.