“Packing the galleries” is an outdated practice in which campaign managers would fill up the seats at a political convention with their own supporters. In theory, those supporters would then cheer so loudly for their favored candidate that he would have a good shot at winning his party’s nomination.
The first recorded incident of gallery packing took place in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was vying for the Republican nomination to the presidency. At the time, Lincoln seemed to be considerably behind William Seward, and he needed a boost. Fortunately for him, the convention took place in his native Illinois, in Chicago. His supporters made sure that extra tickets were printed and handed out to Lincoln’s crowd, who were also told to show up early to the convention. Illinois delegation chairman Norman Judd also arranged the seating so that Seward’s supporters were kept apart from each other and from swing states.
Decades later, in 1940, supporters of Wendell Willkie packed the Republican National Convention. Willkie, an obscure candidate, was not expected to win the presidential nomination. However, Willkie an unexpected advantage: the man in charge of handing out tickets to the convention that year had a sudden stroke and, at the last minute, a Willkie supporter was put in his place. This made it relatively easy to pack the galleries with Willkie’s supporters.
By all accounts, Willkie’s supporters were rowdy and very, very loud. When Willkie’s name was officially put into nomination, there was a “deafening roar” from his followers. The convention was also interrupted by an extended fight between Willkie’s supporters and others in the crowd, over the location of state signs. Police finally intervened to break up the fight. Throughout all of this, Willkie’s crowd kept shouting “We want Willkie.” Willkie finally won the nomination in the sixth round of voting.
A few decades later, in 1968, Chicago mayor Richard Daley packed the Democratic National Convention (in Chicago) for reasons of his own. Mayor Daley was getting a bad name in the press, in large part because of the way his police force had treated people protesting against the Vietnam War. Police had been filmed tear gassing and beating demonstrators, in images which went around the world. Now, during the convention, speakers used their floor time to denounce those tactics.
Daley was tired of being vilified. He was also concerned that delegates might decide to walk out of the convention hall in protest against him. That’s why he bused in about 400 people to fill up the seats and ensure that the rest of the convention, all the way through the formal nomination of Hubert Humphrey, went smoothly.
In our own times, political conventions have become generally predictable, orchestrated events. And in 2020, both parties’ national conventions were shaped by the precautions around the coronavirus pandemic. The Democratic National Convention was an entirely virtual affair, with Joe Biden accepting his nomination over a livestream from his home in Delaware. The Republican National Convention was held in person, but there were no crowds packing galleries; attendees were encouraged to mask and to practice social distancing.