The first Mock Convention held at Washington and Lee University was staged in 1908, after a visit from Democratic icon and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Inspired by his gripping oratory, the W&L student body resolved to hold their own version of the Democratic Convention set to convene in Denver later that year, the first such attempt in what would become a century-long tradition of active political engagement by Washington and Lee students. In May of 1908, the first convention produced the first accurate prediction, nominating Bryan.
During the following decade, Mock Convention transitioned from an informal gathering of students to a more formal effort to capture the spirit of a major party event. By 1924, it was carefully organized with the rules and practices of the actual convention in mind. That year saw one of the most dramatic rounds of balloting yet, with Solicitor General and Washington and Lee Alumnus John W. Davis winning the nomination despite not even being a declared candidate. Remarkably, Davis would go on to accept the Democratic nomination at Madison Square Garden that July. Though he lost to Calvin Coolidge in the general election, the prediction of Davis as the nominee helped establish Mock Convention's reputation as a serious political undertaking.
By mid-century, the events surrounding the convention had expanded to include a parade of floats constructed by student delegates from each state, and the research effort had intensified. In 1952 a last minute cable to the W&L California State Chair from governor and future Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren released enough delegates to allow Dwight D. Eisenhower to win the Republican nomination, yet another successful prediction. The 1956 convention was marred by the passing of the guest of honor, former Vice President Alben W. Barkley, who collapsed at the podium during an impassioned address. Encouraged to continue by his widow, the convention reconvened a week later, and reached another accurate result.
Former and future presidents have appeared at several conventions through the years. Harry S. Truman was the keynote speaker at the 1960 Mock Convention (which successfully predicted John F. Kennedy's nomination). “This is a real convention, and I ought to known because I’ve been looking at them since 1912," he pronounced from the podium to wild applause. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter spoke at the 1972 convention, legend holds that future White House Press Secretary Jody Powell was drinking beer and playing pinball with students at Central Lunch on Main Street during his boss' address. Longtime Arkansas governor Bill Clinton appeared at the 1988 convention, and to this day students recount the story of his surprise saxophone performance at an off-campus party a full four years before his iconic MTV appearance.
The Modern Mock Con
As the focus of the nominating process has shifted from dramatic late night convention dealings to the yearlong cycle of primaries and caucuses, Mock Convention has adapted to capture the breadth and drama of the electoral process. Events begin with Spring Kickoff, held a little less than a year prior to the convention itself, where the likes Jesse Jackson and Karl Rove have energized students for the task ahead. State chairs and student delegates are tasked with establishing relationships with office holders, members of the media, party officials, and others knowledgeable about the situation on the ground in the regions they represent throughout the build-up to the convention. Their conclusions, along with the most accurate available polling data, form the foundation of the prediction. The convention kicks off with the traditional parade, followed by two sessions. During the final session, in accordance with party rules, each state announces the distribution of its delegates, revealing the final delegate total piece by piece.
During the modern era, this combination of careful research and sustained enthusiasm has secured Mock Convention's tradition of accuracy. Since 1948, the prediction has only been incorrect twice.