Impact of the Two-Thirds Rule at Democratic Party Conventions


The Two-Thirds rule, which required the Democratic Presidential nominee to lock up a supermajority of the delegates, foiled two simple majority candidacies.

In 1832, the first convention of the Democratic Party met to choose a Vice-President for President Andrew Jackson. The Democrats approved the rule that Two-Thirds of the total delegates would determine the nominee. William R. King, a member of the committee that drafted the rule, thought that a Two-Thirds super-majority “would carry with it a greater moral eight and be more favorably received than one made by a smaller number.” In later years, however, it would muddle future conventions.

Martin Van Buren

Texas annexation was the top issue for Democrats in the 1844 election. After the release of Secretary of State John C. Calhoun’s letter defending slavery and Texas annexation to British minister Richard Pakenham, former President Martin Van Buren announced his position. In a reply to Mississippi Congressman William Hammett’s letter, Van Buren said he would annex Texas as President if the people favored it, but stressed that Texas annexation was an act of aggression against Mexico and would stain the nation’s honor.

Southern Democrats stewed over Van Buren’s remarks before the opening of the Democratic Convention. With Van Buren having the most delegates, southerners managed to adopt the Two-Thirds rule for nominating the Presidential nominee. Gradually, Van Buren’s simple majority faded with each ballot and James K. Polk of Tennessee, a supporter of annexation and endorsed by party founder Jackson, grabbed the nomination unanimously after Van Buren dropped out on the ninth ballot.

Thanks to the Two-Thirds rule, Polk became President and was able to not only ensure Texas was annexed, but also acquired the Oregon Territory and fought a war with Mexico for California and the Southwest. If the 1844 presidential election pitted Van Buren against the Whig nominee Henry Clay, who were both shaky on annexation, the U.S.-Mexican War might never have happened. Perhaps even the Civil War would have been delayed to later in the century.

James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark

By the time 1912 arrived, the Two-Thirds rule was engrained in Democratic Party tradition. And that year the Democrats had the Presidency practically drop in their lap when the Republican Party split with Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives forming their own party. Going into the Democratic Convention, Missouri Congressman and Speaker of the House Champ Clark had the lead in delegates pledged over New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.

On the tenth ballot, Clark had a simple majority with 556 votes on the strength of the New York delegates delivered by Tammany Hall boss Charlie Murphy. But former Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, angling for the nomination himself, called Clark’s candidacy tainted with bossist Tammany support. The Clark stampede stopped and slowly, by the forty-sixth ballot, Wilson captured two-thirds of the convention.

What if the simple majority rule was in effect and Clark won the nomination? We know that Clark, as Speaker of the House during Wilson’s presidency, objected to the Federal Reserve Act and America’s entry into World War I. A Clark Presidency might have altered the financial and diplomatic course of the country as we know it.

The beginning of the end for the Two-Thirds rule was perhaps at the 1924 Democratic Convention. It took 103 ballots to nominate a Presidential candidate and the party was nearly destroyed. Those memories lingered at the 1932 convention. Franklin Roosevelt had simple majorities on the first three ballots but a “Stop Roosevelt” campaign was lurking. Then William McAdoo, a 1924 candidate, announced that the Texas and California delegations would switch to Roosevelt, “I want to cause no wounds. Those of 1924 were created against my wish.”

Roosevelt almost joined Van Buren and Clark as victims of the Two-Thirds rule. Eventually, with President Roosevelt’s influence, the 1936 Democratic Convention abolished the rule. Even though its original purpose was to come up with a clear consensus nominee, the Two-Thirds rule ended up giving minority blocs (southerners, Bryanites for example) the ability to manipulate that consensus.