Mock Convention: A History of Excellence As Mock Con 2020 approaches, take a look back at the 112-year history of this unparalleled event.
“The Mock Convention has always been the total responsibility of the students… The three co-chairmen who manage the convention have the experience of directing hundreds of others, raising and spending nearly $300,000, and appearing for a moment on the national stage.”
~ Professor William “Buck” Buchanan, Class of 1941
Every four years for the last 112 years, the student body of Washington and Lee University has gathered for a century-long tradition of political strategy, debate and celebration known as Mock Convention. Founded in 1908, the event is one of our university’s longest-running and most cherished traditions. Despite predating the sinking of the Titanic, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the invention of both radio and television, our convention can’t claim to be the oldest in the country—however, we are hailed as the “most accurate,” with only three wrong nominees in the history of the event.
After 26 Mock Conventions, one can expect a history as colorful as the speakers, students and spectators who have participated since its inception. The country and the university have seen a lot of change in the intervening years: seven wars were fought, 19 presidents served the nation, and 11 constitutional amendments were made, but a common thread throughout the years has been the unparalleled enthusiasm and support for the convention by our student body. After the 1908 convention, the Lexington Gazette reported that the young participants “entered into the meeting with the zest of seasoned politicians plus the enthusiasm of collegians,” and after 112 years, this description continues to ring true.
The student body is the driving force of this political extravaganza—years of research, countless hours of logistics, and an impressive docket of speakers are organized every four years solely by the enterprising students of W&L.
“As a student-run production, Mock Convention thrives on the energy and engagement of the student body. From the social events to the convention itself, Mock Con is a marathon of research, logistics and planning, and late nights. The years of preparation – from almost the entire student body – demonstrate that young people are passionate and engaged in presidential politics.”
~ Alex Utsey, Class of 2009
Washington and Lee’s nominee: William Jennings Bryan
Democratic nominee: William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan speaks at the Lexington Ice Rink, and a democratic fever sweeps campus. Bryan’s student supporters form the Bryan Club, and supporters of his opponent, Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson, swiftly form an opposition.
“Words are wholly inadequate to express the degree of enthusiasm of delegates, which frequently manifested itself in the character of a ‘scrap’ or a heated ‘set to’… The storm burst at the calling of Kansas, when a fight broke out amongst the delegates (“very characteristic of that state indeed,” quoth the R-t-P). Similar fights broke out in the delegations of New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri.”
~ Ring-tum Phi, 1968
Bryan is nominated; Johnson’s supporters defect to an English classroom and nominate him instead.When Bryan is declared the official nominee, W&L’s standard of accuracy is established, and Bryan’s record of failure is solidified once he loses his presidential bid for the third time.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Judson Harmon
Democratic nominee: Woodrow Wilson
The Titanic sinks, and the newly formed student club, Forum, manages the 1912 Mock Convention with the support of the faculty.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Charles Evans Hughes
Republican nominee: Charles Evans Hughes
The convention is held in the newly constructed Doremus Gymnasium. The students decide to predict the nominee for the out-of-power Republican Party for the first time.
No convention, no nominee.
Mock Convention is cancelled due to lack of interest, despite the urging of many alums. This would be the first instance out of only two convention cancellations ever. Women finally gain the right to vote that November.
Washington and Lee’s Nominee: John W. Davis
Democratic nominee: John W. Davis
The candidacy of W&L alum John W. Davis (UG Class of 1892, Law Class of 1895) revives interest in a Mock Convention, and the issue of prohibition takes center stage that year (The dry states of Texas, Ohio and Connecticut would ultimately walk out on the convention).
Davis receives a mere 3% of votes on the initial ballot, but cinches the nomination from his alma mater after a total of 24 ballots. “The W&L Swing” would become his campaign song after his official nomination by the DNC.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Democratic nominee: Franklin D. Roosevelt
The convention becomes a truly legitimate affair thanks in large part to the efforts of Student Body President Graham Morison (Law Class of 1932) and fellow student Ross Malone (Class of 1932): liaisons are made with the Democratic Party in Washington, and a convention committee is established, and a list of the official convention rules is acquired so as to resemble the real convention as closely as possible.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Arthur Vandenburg
Republican nominee: Thomas E. Dewey
Each convention year, students show up in greater numbers, with more eagerness, wackier costumes and louder cowbells. Their enthusiasm culminates in the establishment of the most beloved of Mock Convention traditions: the parade.
“My experience was freshman year, so feels like a million years ago. But the one thing that really sticks out in my head was the parade. Each state had a float and I was, obviously, on New Jersey. Ours featured a scene from an Atlantic City casino – blackjack setup and all. It was incredibly fun.”
~ Alex Laymon, Class of 2009
Elephants lead the crush of student-designed floats, brass bands play, and the convention nominates Arthur Vandenberg in a last minute swing-vote by the Texas delegation, which ultimately is the wrong decision.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Adlai Stevenson
Democratic nominee: Adlai Stevenson
Former Vice President and Senator Alben Barkley delivers the keynote address. He famously states, “I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty,” then promptly suffers a massive heart attack and dies.
“…He remembers that a fellow Pi Phi was recording vice president Barkley’s speech when he died in the middle of the convention. He could not recall his name but remembered that he wrote a book about it and received some notoriety over reporting on the incident.”
~ Memory of John Kinkead, Class of 1953, as recalled by his son George Kinkead, Class of 1985
Washington and Lee’s nominee: John F. Kennedy
Democratic nominee: John F. Kennedy
Harry S. Truman is the keynote speaker.
“This is a real convention, and I ought to know because I’ve been looking at them since 1912.″
~ Harry S. Truman
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Richard Nixon
Republican nominee: Richard Nixon
Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated; Richard Nixon speaks at the Mock Convention, an elephant misses the parade due to technical difficulties, and a bomb threat is received (and then debunked) by the Lexington Police Department. For the first time, students attempt to predict the platform decisions as well as the nominee. Four hundred questionnaires are distributed to party leaders; they ultimately bore a 22-page document written by the collegiate researchers.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Ted Kennedy
Democratic nominee: George McGovern
Students vet Ted Kennedy over the eventual Democratic nominee George McGovern, but the thorough thrashing McGovern receives during the presidential race is proof enough for many that the student body of W&L is more in touch with the nation’s political climate than the DNC.
The then-unknown governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, gives the keynote speech, which is allegedly skipped by his own press secretary in favor of an off-campus hangout with students and alums.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Ronald Reagan
Republican nominee: Ronald Reagan
A particularly interesting year for the parade—an ill-timed fireworks display from one of the state floats results in the Iowa float being set aflame.
Other parade highlights include the Budweiser Clydesdales and the celebrity elephant Jewel, who entertains the crowd with tricks along the route.
“Mock Con was a blast, even though I’ve never followed politics much. I worked with some fraternity brothers on creating the Mississippi float and rode on it in the parade. Probably one of my best memories, though, was the speech by Les Cotter as the South Carolina rep. I recall Les’ speech starting with a description of South Carolina as an “oasis of humility between two mountains of conceit,” then bragging for the next ten mins about the wonder and charm of SC. Easily the best speech that day.”
~ Chip James, Class of 1980
“The 1980 Mock Convention was a wonderful time; and, I think, as state chairman for the great state of South Carolina, I spoke “off the cuff” without any written speech about and describing the “Land of Milk and Honey” that is the great state of South Carolina… Yes, the proud Palmetto State, a state which is an oasis and a valley of humility between two states of conceit, etc, etc… then I announced that “The hreat state of South Carolina casts all of her votes to the (then to be) next President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan!!” The 1980 Mock Convention Parade, with our (pre-coed) true South Carolina southern belles (and dates), adding great beauty alongside the W&L gentlemen, shining and waving on the South Carolina float stage to the packed crowd as we motored down Main Street in Lex, was also quite memorable, indeed!”
~ Les Cotter, Class of 1980, South Carolina State Chairman
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Walter Mondale
Democratic nominee: Walter Mondale
Mock Convention raises more money in ’84 than any convention year before: their budget is $102,500, raised by the enthusiastic fundraising efforts of the students and generous donations from passionate alums. The Texas delegation alone raises $7,000 through a summer-long letter writing campaign.
“I remember helicopters used to land where the junior housing is now… As a junior in 1984 I worked on the first digital scoreboard to record the votes… the prototype worked fine, we set it up in old Parmly Hall, and it worked great, but once we moved it into the gym it turned into a fireworks show.”
~ Henry Dewing, Class of 1985
“I was amazed that political leaders would make time for a 21-year-old college kid. During the convention I was given the honor of giving the nomination speech for Vice President Mondale, which I did not know I was giving until 2 weeks before… I actually wrote a letter to President Reagan apologizing for nominating Mondale and assuring him that I still supported him. I doubt he read it or even saw it. During my speech I was very nervous and moved very quickly until I made a tremendous gaffe, which made the whole conventional break out in hilarious laughter.”
~ George Kinkead, Minnesota State Chair, Class of 1985
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Michael Dukakis
Democratic nominee: Michael Dukakis
Bill Clinton makes a speech that will be forever overshadowed in history by his legendary surprise performance at Zollman’s Pavilion.
“I recall the excitement and comradeship of everyone building their floats late into the night/early morning of Parade Day and the transformation of Warner Center into the Convention Hall. No one can forget Governor (at the time) Clinton’s participation. Being back on campus and having now experienced three, soon to be four, Mock Conventions I continue to be impressed with the overall spectacle. All three MC’s I’ve attended have been exceptional and each one seems to raise the bar a little more. The caliber and quality of speakers continues to amaze me and I’m sure the 2016 Mock Convention will not disappoint.”
~ Tom Lovell, Class of 1991, and Senior Associate Director of Alumni Affairs
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Bill Clinton
Democratic nominee: Bill Clinton
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Bob Dole
Republican nominee: Bob Dole
Mock Convention attracts the attention of an impressive array of national news outlets, including live C-Span coverage notable for the state chairmen’s prefaces to their votes, i.e.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: George W. Bush
Republican nominee: George W. Bush
The millennial Mock Convention is the “perfect mix of partying and politics” says Natalie Swope, Class of ’01 (as quoted in the Ring-tum Phi, January 31, 2000). George W. Bush wins the nomination by a landslide, and Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma amusingly refers to Al Gore as a “reliable windsock.” His quote immediately finds its home in the hearts and minds of the student body.
Washington and Lee’s nominee: John Kerry
Democratic nominee: John Kerry
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Hillary Clinton
Democratic nominee: Barack Obama
Mock Convention’s centennial year is marked by a reflection on 100 years of progress and tradition since the Bryan club initiated the first convention in 1908. Every year, publicity has increased and celebration has swelled, and every correct nomination has solidified our reputation for accuracy and excellence. “One of the legacies of the convention’s first 100 years [is] finding rising stars like Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter and introducing them to America years before anyone else knows who they are,” according to the Ring-tum Phi (January 24, 2008). Other speakers have included Harry S. Truman, Vice President Joe Biden, Beau Biden, James Carville, Rev. Jesse Jackson and many, many more. Although we incorrectly nominated Hillary Clinton (who would lose the nomination to Barack Obama), 2008 still marked an incredible year in Mock Convention history.
“My favorite Mock Con memories include building floats for the parade, countless state-sponsored parties, and long hours working with Speakers Committee members to recruit the convention’s speakers. While the convention itself was a blur, I will never forget the deafening cheers from students when we pulled off a Hail Mary and got Bill Clinton to call in to address the convention on the day of the South Carolina primary. It was an incredible moment.”
~ Alex Utsey, Class of 2009
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Mitt Romney
Republican nominee: Mitt Romney
This year sees the first interactive Mock Convention website with live streaming and the first female general chair (Tricia King, Class of 2012), and becomes the convention year that sets the new record for most money raised ($200,000 from 650 donors).
“The accuracy is reason enough that any politician would want to be [at Mock Con].”
~ Then-governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, 2012
“My favorite part of [Mock Convention] was the Anne Coulter/James Carville debate. Fun fact: Ken Cuccinelli spoke (he was the Virginia Attorney General at the time) and now we have him on my show here at CNN all the time- he’s one of our favorite Republican commentators!”
~ Laura Lindsay Tatum, Class of 2014 and former CNN employee
“I have a tie for my favorite memory. The first would be over spring-kickoff weekend. We ordered a cake from Ace of Cakes. It was a replica of the Colonnade with figurines of the front-runners standing on the lawn. We spent a big chunk of our budget on it, so I was very nervous on the day of delivery. When it came out of the van it looked perfect! A fondant Sarah Palin holding a teeny fondant shotgun was one of the funniest things I’d seen and the cake was a HUGE hit with students.
My second has to be Jon Huntsman… He made a point of answering the student reporters’ questions first and was very complimentary of our school. I was blown away by his thoughtfulness and humility- just a genuinely great guy. I don’t think there’s any other organization on campus that brings together such a wide array of students and bonds them as completely as Mock Con. When we announced the nominee and the balloons came down, we were all screaming and hugging each other in pure euphoria!”
~ Kali McFarland, Class of 2012, Director of Media and Communications
Washington and Lee’s nominee: Donald J. Trump
Republican nominee: Donald J. Trump
Mock Convention 2016 features visits from former Vice President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), former Republican National Convention Chairman Ed Gillespie, political commentator Ann Coulter and others.
“Participating in Mock Con has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It’s an event that’s totally unique to our school, and it definitely sets W&L apart from any other college I’ve visited. The fact that students have been able to govern Mock Con and predict nominees with such accuracy over the past 112 years is nothing short of amazing… This is one of the wildest and most unpredictable elections in decades, which definitely doesn’t make our jobs easy. But everyone in Mock Con has risen to the challenge, and I think this year’s convention is going to go down as one of the best in W&L’s history.”
~ John Tompkins, Class of 2018, Florida State Chair
Who will be Washington and Lee’s nominee this year?
Will it match that of the Democratic Party?
The only way to know for sure is to follow Mock Con 2020, which takes place Feb. 14-16, 2020.
“Politics often divides people, but Mock Con is a chance for our whole community to come together.”
~ Jimmy Fleck ’20, Mock Con 2020 General Chair