In modern times, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are pretty boring. Everyone knows who will win the nomination long before the convention starts, eliminating the possibility of a brokered convention. But that doesn’t stop people from fantasizing about the possibility of a convention where no one candidate has enough delegates on the first ballot, where a candidate is chosen only after multiple ballots, much political finagling and a 2:00 AM deal made in smoky back room. A Google search for “brokered convention” for the months leading up to the 2012 Republican convention shows that lots of people were writing about the possibility of one, even though many admitted upfront that it was highly unlikely.
Brokered conventions were not rare in Harding’s day. While the most recent one was over 60 years ago now, back in the day it wasn’t so clear who would get the nomination. For one thing, national media did not have nearly the reach that it does today, so voting voting was often more regional. Party bosses also had a huge influence. Delegate rules have changed over the years. For these reasons and more, a brokered convention was just more likely to happen back then.
Going into the 1920 convention, Warren G. Harding was in sixth place among the Republican candidates. To compare this to the most recent election cycle, imagine that Mitt Romney, while clearly being the leading Republican candidate, did not quite have the majority of delegates needed to clinch the nomination prior to the convention. Then, despite garnering fewer delegates that Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and even Jon Huntsman, some back-room deals were hatched and Michele Bachman became the Republican candidate. And then won the Presidency. By a landslide. That’s insane to think of now, but that’s what happened in 1920 and that’s part of how Warren G. Harding became President.
One difference to note however, that part of why Harding won out is that he was largely unknown, offended no one, and “looked Presidential.” The same could not be said for Michele Bachman, who was covered extensively in the national media for some rather controversial opinions and, as a woman, stood no chance of looking like the traditional idea of a US President. Warren G. Harding was probably more of a Jon Huntsman in this regard, but without all the competency and qualifications for office.