RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're looking back all this year 40 years to tumultuous moments of 1968. One of those was the Democratic convention in Chicago, which followed months of political turmoil throughout the country, including assassinations and anti-war demonstrations. At that convention, police battled protestors in the street. Many Democrats saw this unruly convention as one of the reasons they lost the election to Richard Nixon. That defeat in a landslide loss four years later led the Democrats to change the way they approach conventions.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer has more.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Before 1968, powerful people and party bosses around the country picked delegates to the conventions. Their delegates then choose the nominee. There were factional battles at party conventions, but civilians were not involved until the general election.
In 1968, Democrats decided future conventions should fairly represent Democratic voters. South Dakota Senator George McGovern chaired a reform commission, which ended what he called presidential selection by middle-aged, middle-class white men.
Senator GEORGE MCGOVERN (Democrat, South Dakota): I'm not against people like that. I was one myself in 1968 and '72. But that's not the Democratic way to select a presidential nominee.
WERTHEIMER: McGovern's reforms included women, minorities and young people chosen in an open manner. At the 1972 Miami convention, Senator McGovern was himself the nominee, but chaos reined. Disputes and speeches went on so long, he made his acceptance speech in the wee small hours.
Sen. MCGOVERN: If we had that to do over again, I can guarantee you the 1972 people who were for me would have a much more disciplined convention, and we would not have allowed seconding speeches for a running mate that ran until about 2:30 in the morning. I had to give my acceptance speech after that. That was a disaster.
WERTHEIMER: That obsession with fair representation became a joke at the Republican convention, also held in Miami that year. California Governor Ronald Reagan, better known then as a former movie actor, told the crowd the GOP would have a very different convention.
President RONALD REAGAN: The McGovern party had named its candidate. He was on television later than some of my pictures.
WERTHEIMER: The Republicans wanted their Miami meeting to be perfect, on script, a contrast between a president who could control its convention and a nominee who could not.
David Gergen, who teaches at Harvard now, was working for President Richard Nixon.
Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Harvard University): By 1972, the Republicans were determined to have a highly scripted, highly choreographed convention that would appeal to people through television. I was just a young kid then, working in the White House, had never been to a political convention, and was tapped to pull together the script for the 1972 convention.
WERTHEIMER: Gergen was told to ask comedian Bob Hope for joke writers to produce fresh material to keep the convention moving along. It was the first of the highly produced, ready-for-primetime conventions.
Mr. GERGEN: First time I met Ronald Reagan, he was just about to go up to the podium, and I came running over with a couple of jokes for his speech. And he had all these index cards, and he looked at me - who the hell are you, kid? Go away. You must be one of those jackasses from the Nixon White House. But it did work. Nixon actually got an eight-point bounce out of that convention.
WERTHEIMER: By 1976, Democrats decided the fairest way to pick convention delegates was through primaries and caucuses open to the public. But reforms produced an unexpected result.
President JIMMY CARTER: My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president.
(Soundbite of cheering)
WERTHEIMER: The governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, at the 1976 New York convention. He introduced himself in just that way to thousands of voters and won the nomination. Nothing remotely like that had ever happened.
Jody Powell is a Washington lobbyist now. He was part of the Carter campaign.
Mr. JODY POWELL (Washington Lobbyist): If this had been a nomination process that was essentially controlled by the leadership of the Democratic Party, then Jimmy Carter would have stood no chance.
WERTHEIMER: Carter, Powell and the late Hamilton Jordan looked at the new primaries and caucuses the Democratic reforms put in place and saw their chance. They could begin in the small farm state of Iowa, where they could run a low-budget campaign and perhaps create political momentum.
Mr. POWELL: So, if we could win in Iowa and win in New Hampshire, we just might have enough money to compete effectively in Florida.
WERTHEIMER: The Carter blueprint, outlined there, has been followed by candidates ever since, including Republicans. When Democratic state legislatures created primaries and caucuses for the Democrats, Republicans were automatically included. Then primaries spread to other states, which wanted to participate.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): After 54 hard-fought contests…
(Soundbite of cheering)
Sen. OBAMA: …our primary season has finally come to an end.
(Soundbite of cheering)
WERTHEIMER: That was Barack Obama claiming the Democratic nomination this summer. Like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Obama saw an opportunity in the evolving reforms of '68. Still trying to make nominations fair, in the 90s, Democrats eliminated winner take all and went for proportional representation.
Elaine Kamarck is a member of the Democratic National Committee and a lecturer at Harvard.
Dr. ELAINE KAMARCK (Democratic National Committee; Lecturer, Harvard University): What Barack Obama understood was that this was not a state-by-state race. This was a congressional-district-by-congressional-district race. And you saw that in the exquisite attention they paid to small caucus states, like Alaska, like Kansas.
WERTHEIMER: While Hillary Clinton pursued a big state strategy, Barack Obama hunted delegates in caucuses, in small states, in black congressional districts and Republicans states, building momentum and building a lead. The Obama campaign understood that rules on proportional representation would mean that Clinton's wins in big states could not overcome that lead.
Dr. KAMARCK: When Hillary Clinton was winning big states, she was not winning big delegate totals. And the reason is that the Democrats' proportional system - because it does not allow for fractions - basically rewards the loser in a two-way race.
WERTHEIMER: In Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, for instance, where Clinton won, but basically split the delegates.
The 1968 reforms did one very big thing: put the voters, not the party leaders, in charge of choosing candidates. That made come-from-nowhere candidates possible. And since nominees are now picked in primaries and caucuses, the conventions became mainly a performance space - good thing or bad thing?
Senator McGovern says he can't think of any bad results from the reforms. Jody Powell is a little bit nostalgic for the days when nominees were chosen at the conventions after the famous bruising floor fight.
Mr. POWELL: There's no suspense. There's no mystery. There's news value to it. People just don't watch it. Yet it's good to be able to keep bad things from happening, but the downside is if there's going to be no wrecks in the race, no one wants to watch the race.
WERTHEIMER: The 2008 Democratic convention starts today in Denver.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.