“A real dog fight”: The 1960 Mock Democratic National Convention

A pair of donkeys lead the parade for the UNC Mock Democratic National Convention. The Daily Tar Heel, April 30, 1960.
A pair of donkeys lead the parade for the UNC Mock Democratic National Convention. The Daily Tar Heel, April 30, 1960.

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions happening this month, I started looking for Daily Tar Heel coverage of past national conventions. I came across several mentions of a “mock” Democratic National Convention — it turns out that in April 1960, the Carolina student body staged this massive event in anticipation of the real DNC in July.

Norman B. Smith, the target of the recall vote
Norman B. Smith, the target of the recall vote. The Daily Tar Heel, April 26, 1960.

The Mock Convention took place across two days, April 29-30, and featured speeches from Chancellor William B. Aycock, Governor Luther H. Hodges, Congressman Ed Edmondson, and Senator Albert Gore (whose son Al Gore would win the Democratic presidential nomination 40 years later). A committee of student Democrats also proposed and voted on a Democratic party platform.

Of course, the Mock Convention was not without its scandals. An April 26 profile of the Convention Chairman, UNC senior Norman B. Smith, “outed” him as a registered Republican. Three days later, at the start of the Mock Convention, a DTH headline proclaimed that a “movement” had begun to recall Smith as Chairman. The UNC Young Democratic Club hoped to seize their chance to recall Smith later that afternoon at the convention. This resulted in the first roll call vote of the convention. However, the Young Democrats failed to oust Smith — he was confirmed as “Permanent Chairman” by the roll call vote.

Why a Mock DNC, and not a Mock RNC? According to Convention Chairman Smith, there were several reasons for this choice:

In the first place there are enough candidates for the Democratic nomination to make the Convention a real dog fight and a lot of fun. Everybody knows who the Republicans are going to nominate.

At this point in the presidential race, Richard Nixon was already the only likely candidate for the Republican nomination. The Democratic field, however, had many strong contenders. The choices on the Mock Convention ballot were Harry S. Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Symington, Hubert Humphrey, Albert Gore, and Ed Edmondson.

The Mock Convention candidates. The Daily Tar Heel, April 29, 1960.
The Mock Convention candidates. The Daily Tar Heel, April 29, 1960.

Convention Chairman Smith continued:

Then, too, we Republicans are outnumbered… This is a Democratic state and, thus, a Democratic campus. We felt therefore, that many more people would be interested in a Democratic Convention.

(In a strange turn of events, a May 3 article heralded Smith’s revival-style conversion to the Democratic party at the Mock Convention, where he stated, “I don’t know what happened… I’m a Democrat now, and extremely happy.”)

The Mock Convention concluded with a vote, where students selected former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson as their presidential candidate, and Senator John F. Kennedy as his running mate.

Of course, we now have the benefit of hindsight. The Democratic candidate chosen by Carolina students did not ultimately win the Democratic nomination — JFK won a sizable majority at the 1960 DNC. But these articles from the Daily Tar Heel offer some fascinating insight into the student body and changing political climate at UNC at the beginning of the 1960’s. The articles show an increasing emphasis on student engagement in politics, and the Mock Convention’s platform turned out to be as liberal on civil rights issues as the actual Democratic platform of 1960. In some ways, the activities of the Mock Convention, the first ever held at Carolina, anticipates the student activism and political awareness of the 1960’s.

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