Historically, the convention was the final determinant of the nomination, and often contentious as various factions of party insiders maneuvered to advance their candidates. Since the almost universal adoption of the primary election for selecting delegates in the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the convention's significance has diminished. The national party focuses on the convention as a unity point to bring together a party platform and state parties.
The size of delegations to the Republican National Convention are determined by the national rules of the party, which as of 2004 indicate the following:
- Ten delegates at large from each of the fifty states.
- The national committeeman, the national committeewoman and the chairman of the state Republican Party of, each state and American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Three district delegates for each member of the United States House of Representatives from each state, six from DC, and between six and twenty delegates from each of the territories.
- From each state having cast at least a majority of its Electoral College votes for the Republican nominee in the preceding presidential election: four and one-half delegates at large plus a number of the delegates at large equal to 60 percent of the number of electoral votes of that state, rounding any fraction upwards
- one additional delegate at large to each state
- which elected a Republican governor since the preceding presidential election
- whose Republican members of the United States House of Representatives represent a majority of that state's representatives
- where Republicans control any chamber of the state legislature
- where Republicans control all chambers of the state legislature
- one additional delegate to each state per Republican it elected to the United States Senate in the six-year period prior to January 1 of the year in which the next national convention is held.
The composition of the individual state and territory delegations is determined by the bylaws of their respective state and territory parties. Since 1972, almost all have appointed delegates by primary election results, although some, notably Iowa, use caucuses, and others combine the primary with caucuses or with delegates elected at a state convention.
In the past, competing factions of a state party sometimes drew up separate lists of delegates, each claiming to be the official one. One of the first agenda items at a convention is therefore credentialing, whereby the Credentials Committee determines which group is recognized as the official delegation.
At a meeting convened by Amos Tuck in Exeter, New Hampshire on October 12, 1853, the Republican Party was formed. The first meeting after this formation and the selection of the party name was held on July 6, 1854, in Jackson, Michigan. This meeting led to the first Republican National Convention, held at Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22-23, 1856. At this convention, the Republican Party was formally organized on a national basis, and the first Republican National Committee was elected. The first Republican National Convention to nominate a presidential candidate convened from June 17–19, 1856 at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The 1860 convention nominated the first successful GOP presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. The 1864 event, with the American Civil War raging, was branded as the "National Union Convention" as it included Democrats who remained loyal to the Union and nominated Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee for Vice President.
The 1912 Republican convention saw the business-oriented faction supporting William Howard Taft turn back a challenge from former president Theodore Roosevelt, who boasted broader popular support and even won a primary in Taft's home state of Ohio. Roosevelt would run on the Progressive Party ticket, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
The growing importance of primaries became evident at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, California, where Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater won the nomination, easily turning away Representative William Scranton and others more favorable to the party establishment. It was the convention where NBC News correspondent John Chancellor (who would later helm the NBC Nightly News) refused to cede his spot on the floor for a group of young Goldwater supporters, to sign off when security personnel arrived that "I've been promised bail, ladies and gentlemen, by my office. This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody."
Similarly, former California Governor Ronald Reagan nearly toppled incumbent President Gerald Ford at the 1976 convention in Kansas City by securing a large bloc of votes in the North Carolina primary. It is the last convention of either major party where the outcome of the nomination battle was in doubt.
Pat Buchanan delivered a speech condemning the culture war in American society at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. It was widely criticized for supposedly alienating liberal and centrist voters who might otherwise have voted for the moderate nominee, George H. W. Bush. Division in the party was evident too at the 1996 convention, at which more moderate party members such as California governor Pete Wilson and Massachusetts Governor William Weld unsuccessfully sought to remove the Human Life Amendment plank from the party platform.
The 2004 Republican National Convention, the first-ever Republican convention in New York City, posed unprecedented security challenges due to its location at Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan directly over Pennsylvania Station. Protests were held during the course of the convention. Police studied websites of many activists to gather information on meeting places, and many protesters were pre-emptively arrested while organizing on the street. Protesters were held at an old bus garage on the Hudson River at Pier 57, nicknamed "Guantanamo on the Hudson," and were detained for up to three days without being arraigned and without being granted access to counsel (citation needed).
1 This convention was known as the National Union Convention.
2 This convention was known as the National Union Republican Convention.
3 Sherman died days before the election, and was replaced as Republican vice presidential nominee by Nicholas M. Butler of New York.
- The American Presidency Project, contains the text of the national platforms that were adopted by the conventions (1856-2004)