The selection of New York as the site for the 1924 convention was based in part on the recent success of the party in that state. Two years earlier, in 1922, thirteen Republican congressmen had lost their seats to Democrats. New York had not been chosen for a convention since 1868. Wealthy New Yorkers, who had outbid other cities, declared their purpose "to convince the rest of the country that the town was not the red-light menace generally conceived by the sticks". Though dry organizations opposed the choice of New York, it won McAdoo's grudging consent in the fall of 1923, before the oil scandals made Smith a serious threat to him. McAdoo's own adopted state, California, had played host to the Democrats in 1920.
McAdoo swept the primaries in the first real race in the history of the party, although most states chose delegates through machines and conventions, giving most of their projected votes to local or hometown candidates, referred to as "favorite sons".
The Ku Klux Klan was resurrected after the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith's very popular motion picture The Birth of a Nation. After World War I, the popularity of the Klan surged due to connections of its public relations leadership to those who had promoted the successful Prohibition Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, becoming a political power throughout many regions of the United States, not just in the South. Its local political strength throughout the country gave it a major role in the 1924 Democratic Party National Convention (DNC). The 20th Century Ku Klux Klan was notoriously anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, in addition to being anti-black. The Klan advocates opposed those supporting Catholics from the major cities of the Northeast and Midwest. The tension between pro- and anti-Klan delegates produced an intense and sometimes violent showdown between convention attendees from the states of Colorado and Missouri. Klan delegates opposed the nomination of New York Governor Al Smith because Smith was a Roman Catholic. Smith campaigned against William Gibbs McAdoo, who had the support of most Klan delegates.
The second dispute of the convention revolved around an attempt by non-Klan delegates, led by Forney Johnston of Alabama, to condemn the organization for its violence in the Democratic Party's platform. Klan delegates defeated the platform plank in a series of floor debates. The final vote on condemning the Klan was 542.85 in favor, 546.15 against, so the plank was not included in the platform. To celebrate, tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied in a field in New Jersey, across the river from New York City. This event, known subsequently as the "Klanbake", was also attended by hundreds of Klan delegates to the convention, who burned crosses, urged violence and intimidation against African-Americans and Catholics, and attacked effigies of Smith.
The notoriety of the "Klanbake" convention and the violence it produced cast a lasting shadow over the Democratic Party's prospects in the 1924 election and contributed to their defeat by incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge.
Smith's name was placed into nomination by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first appearance at the Democratic National Convention since his paralytic illness. This signaled a political comeback for Roosevelt; he would be elected Governor of New York four years later and President eight years later.
The first day of balloting (June 30) brought the predicted deadlock between the leading aspirants for the nomination, William G. McAdoo of California and Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, with the remainder divided mainly between local "favorite sons". McAdoo was the leader from the outset, and both he and Smith made small gains in the day's fifteen ballots, but the prevailing belief among the delegates was that the impasse could only be broken by the elimination of both McAdoo and Smith and the selection of one of the other contenders; much interest centred about the candidacy of John W. Davis, who also increased his vote during the day from 31 to 61 (with a peak of 64.5 votes on the 13th and 14th ballots). Most of the favorite son delegations refused to be stampeded to either of the leading candidates and were in no hurry to retire from the contest.
In the early balloting many delegations appeared to be jockeying for position, and some of the original votes were purely complimentary and seemed to conceal the real sentiments of the delegates. Louisiana, for example, which was bound by the "unit rule", first complimented its neighbour Arkansas by casting its 20 votes for Sen. Joseph T. Robinson, then it switched to Sen. Carter Glass, and on another ballot Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie got the twenty, before the delegation finally settled on John W. Davis.
There was some excitement on the tenth ballot, when Kansas abandoned Gov. Jonathan M. Davis and threw its votes to McAdoo. There was an instant uproar among McAdoo delegates and supporters, and a parade was started around the hall, the Kansas standard leading, with those of all the other McAdoo states coming along behind, and pictures of "McAdoo, Democracy's Hope", being lifted up. After six minutes the chairman's gavel brought order and the roll call resumed, and soon the other side had something to cheer, when New Jersey made its favorite son, Gov. George S. Silzer, walk the plank and threw its votes into the Smith column. This started another parade, the New York and New Jersey standards leading those of the other Smith delegations around the hall while the band played "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching".
McAdoo and Smith each evolved a strategy to build up his own total slowly. Smith's trick was to plant his extra votes for his opponent, so that McAdoo's strength might later appear to be waning; the Californian countered by holding back his full force, though he had been planning a strong early show. But by no sleight of hand could the convention have been swung around to either contestant. With the party split into two assertive parts, the rule requiring a two-thirds majority for nomination crippled the chances of both candidates by giving a veto each could—and did—use. McAdoo himself wanted to drop the two-thirds rule, but his Protestant supporters preferred to keep their veto over a Catholic candidate, and the South regarded the rule as a protection of its interests. At no point in the balloting did Smith receive more than a single vote from the South and scarcely more than 20 votes from the states west of the Mississippi; he never won more than 368 of the 729 votes needed for nomination, though even this performance was impressive for a Roman Catholic. McAdoo's strength fluctuated more widely, reaching its highest point of 528 on the seventieth ballot. Since both candidates occasionally received purely strategic aid, the nucleus of their support was probably even less. The remainder of the votes were divided among dark horses and favorite sons who had spun high hopes since the Doheny testimony; understandably, they hesitated to withdraw their own candidacies as long as the convention was so clearly divided.
As time passed, the maneuvers of the two factions took on the character of desperation. Daniel C. Roper even went to Franklin Roosevelt, reportedly to offer Smith second place on a McAdoo ticket. For their part, the Tammany men tried to prolong the convention until the hotel bills were beyond the means of the delegates who had travelled to the convention. The Smith backers also attempted to stampede the delegates by packing the galleries with noisy rooters. Senator James Phelan of California, among others, complained of "New York rowdyism". But the rudeness of Tammany, and particularly the booing accord to Bryan when he spoke to the convention, only steeled the resolution of the country delegates. McAdoo and Bryan both tried to reassemble the convention in another city, perhaps Washington, D.C. or St. Louis.
As a last resort, McAdoo supporters introduced a motion to eliminate one candidate on each ballot until only five remained, but Smith delegates and those supporting favorite sons managed to defeat the McAdoo strategy. Smith countered by suggesting that all delegates be released from their pledges—to which McAdoo agreed on condition that the two-thirds rule be eliminated—although Smith fully expected that loyalty would prevent the disaffection of Indiana and Illinois votes, both controlled by political bosses friendly to him. Indeed, Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts expressed the sentiment that moved Smith backers: "We must continue to do all that we can to nominate Smith. If it should develop that he cannot be nominated, then McAdoo cannot have it either." For his part, McAdoo would angrily quit the convention once he lost: but the sixty-first inconclusive round—when the convention set a record for length of balloting—was no time to admit defeat.
It had seemed for a time that the nomination could go to Samuel Ralston, an Indiana senator and popular ex-governor. Advanced by the indefatigable boss Thomas Taggart, Ralston's candidacy might look for some support from Bryan, who had written, "Ralston is the most promising of the compromise candidates." Ralston was also a favorite of the Klan and a second choice of many McAdoo men. In 1922 he had launched an attack on parochial schools that the Klan saw as an endorsement of its own views, and he won several normally Republican counties dominated by the Klan. Commenting on the Klan issue, Ralston said that it would create a bad precedent to denounce any organization by name in the platform. Much of Ralston's support came from the South and West—states including Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nevada, with their strong Klan elements. McAdoo himself, according to Claude Bowers, said: "I like the old Senator, like his simplicity, honesty, record"; and it was reported that he told Smith supporters he would withdraw only in favor of Ralston. As with John W. Davis, Ralston had few enemies, and his support from men as divergent as Bryan and Taggart cast him as a possible compromise candidate. He passed Davis, the almost consistent third choice of the convention, on the fifty-second ballot; but Taggart then discouraged the boom for the time being because the McAdoo and Smith phalanxes showed no signs of weakening. On July 8, the eighty-seventh ballot showed a total for Ralston of 93 votes, chiefly from Indiana and Missouri; before the day was over, the Ralston total had risen to almost 200, a larger tally than Davis had ever received. Most of these votes were drawn from McAdoo, to whom they later returned.
Numerous sources indicate that Taggart was not exaggerating when he later said: "We would have nominated Senator Ralston if he had not withdrawn his name at the last minute. It was a near certainty as anything in politics could be. We had pledges of enough delegates that would shift to Ralston on a certain ballot to have nominated him." Ralston himself had wavered on whether to make the race; despite the doctor's stern recommendation not to run and the illness of his wife and son, the Senator had told Taggart that he would be a candidate, albeit a reluctant one. But the three-hundred pound Ralston finally telegraphed his refusal to go on with it; sixty-six years old at the time of the convention, he would die the following year.
The nomination, stripped of all honor, finally was acclaimed to John W. Davis, a compromise candidate, on the one hundred third ballot, after the withdrawal of Smith and McAdoo. Davis had never been a genuine dark horse candidate; he had almost always been third in the balloting, and by the end of the twenty-ninth round he was the betting favorite of New York gamblers. There had been a Davis movement at the 1920 San Francisco convention of considerable size; however, Charles Hamlin wrote in his diary, Davis "frankly said ... that he was not seeking [the nomination] and that if nominated he would accept only as a matter of public duty". For Vice-President, the Democrats nominated the able Charles W. Bryan, governor of Nebraska, brother of William Jennings Bryan, and for many years editor of The Commoner. Loquacious beyond endurance, Bryan attacked the gas companies of Nebraska and bravely tried such socialistic schemes as a municipal ice plant for Lincoln. In 1922 he had won the governorship by promising to lower taxes. Bryan received little more than the necessary two-thirds vote, and no attempt was made to make the choice unanimous; booes were sounding through the Garden. The incongruous teaming of the distinguished Wall Street lawyer and the radical from a prairie state provided not a balanced but a schizoid ticket, and because the selection of Bryan was reputed to be a sop to the radicals, many delegates unfamiliar with Davis' actual record came to identify the lawyer with a conservatism in excess even of that considerable amount he did indeed represent.
13 names were placed into nomination for Davis' vice-presidential running mate. Early in the process, the permitted length of speeches was limited to five minutes each.
The only ballot was chaotic, with over thirty people, including three women, getting votes. George Berry, a labor union leader from Tennessee, trailed Charles W. Bryan, Governor of Nebraska, by a vote of 332 to 270.5. Bryan had been chosen by a group of party leaders, including Davis and Al Smith. The party leaders first asked Montanan Senator Thomas J. Walsh to run for vice president, but Walsh refused. New Jersey Governor George Sebastian Silzer, Newton D. Baker, and Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie were also considered, but Bryan was proposed as a candidate who could unite the Smith and McAdoo factions. After the end of the first ballot, a cascade of switches from various candidates to Bryan took place, and Bryan was nominated with at least 740 votes. Notably, he remains the only brother of a previous nominee (William Jennings Bryan) to be nominated by a major party.
The official tally was:
Each of the convention's 23 sessions was opened with an invocation by a different nationally prominent clergyman. The choices represented the party's coalition at the time: there were five Episcopalian ministers; three Presbyterians; three Lutherans; two Roman Catholics; two Baptists; two Methodists; one each from the Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists; and two Jewish rabbis. All of the clergy were white men; African-American denominations were not represented.
With the convention deadlocked over the choice of a nominee, some of the invocations became calls for the delegates and candidates to put aside sectionalism and ambition in favor of party unity.
Among the clergy who spoke to the convention:Catholics included His Eminence Patrick Joseph Hayes, Archbishop of New York, and Fr. Francis Patrick Duffy, Chaplain of the New York National Guard.
Episcopalians, such as Rt. Rev. Thomas F. Gailor, Bishop of Tennessee, and Rev. Wythe Leigh Kinsolving, Chaplain of the Virginian Society of New York.
The roster included, on different days, two fierce antagonists and frequent debaters on the theory of evolution and Biblical inerrancy, Rev. John Roach Straton, a Baptist conservative, and Rev. Charles Francis Potter, a Unitarian Modernist.
Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, founder of the Free Synagogue, who was also a delegate from New York.
Dr. Frederick Hermann Knubel, president of the United Lutheran Churches in America.
In his acceptance speech, Davis made the perfunctory statement that he would enforce the prohibition law, but his conservatism prejudiced him in favor of personal liberty and home rule and he was frequently denounced as a wet. The dry leader Wayne Wheeler complained of Davis' "constant repetition of wet catch phrases like 'personal liberty,' 'illegal search and seizure,' and 'home rule'". After the convention Davis tried to satisfy both factions of his party, but his support came principally from the same city elements that had backed Cox in 1920.This was the first Democratic National Convention broadcast on radio.
The first seconding address by a woman in either national political parties was given by Izetta Jewel at this convention, seconding John Davis, and Abby Crawford Milton, seconding McAdoo.
During his 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy cited the dilemma of the Massachusetts delegation at the 1924 Democratic National Convention when making light of his own campaign problems : "Either we must switch to a more liberal candidate or move to a cheaper hotel."
Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Al Smith were filmed during the convention by Lee De Forest in DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process. These films are in the Maurice Zouary collection at the Library of Congress.