“I learned that it was open, in most respects: roll call votes were public, the speeches were public, and so on. You can go online and find all of the formal acceptance addresses and a lot of the nominating addresses without much effort. Very little of it was hammered out in secret; correspondence from generations long gone suggest that there was much less wheeling and dealing than we might otherwise expect, at least by the nominees themselves, who usually stayed away from the convention for fear of giving the impression that they were actively in pursuit of the prize.
I learned that the nominees tended to be fair reflections of the sentiment of the party during the period. There were some exceptions – like for instance in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt was probably the choice of the grassroots of the Republican party but William Howard Taft won the nomination anyway – but by and large you had men on both sides who represented the majority sentiment of their own faction. A great example of this was the victory of William Jennings Bryan in the Democratic nomination in 1896. He was young and inexperienced, certainly not what you’d call an insider, but he tapped into the mood in his own party, and it gave him the nomination.
And I learned that, by and large, the nominees tended to be decent men. For instance, when you look at the Gilded Age – which spans from about the end of the Civil War to the Panic of 1893 – it was a very corrupt time in politics; but when you look at the nominees on both sides, you generally see honorable human beings. Sure, Ulysses S. Grant allowed corruption to fester in his administration and James G. Blaine – the GOP nominee in 1884 – was kind of smarmy, but they were the exceptions.”