This quick answer is yes, it can happen, although it is unlikely to
happen without a number of other conditions being met.
National political conventions are basically self-governing bodies. In
theory, at least, they are free to do whatever they want, or at least
whatever their party charter allow them to do. I would refer you first
to the Democratic Party's charter, already referred to you by
"The Charter & Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States"
This document sets the basic rules for the convention, and you'll note
there's nothing in there about nominees having to had run in the
primaries. The only requirement set up is that state rules must be
followed where they don't violate the charter. Where that comes into
play is that many states and state parties have rules binding their
delegates to voting for specified candidates during the first one or
two ballots (if there's no majority for one nominee, another round of
balloting is held, and another until there's a majority). So if, for
example, Howard Dean went into the convention with a majority of
delegates pledged to him, and those pledges were binding under state
laws and/or state party rules, it would be impossible for anyone else
to win unless Dean were to release the delegates from their pledges.
But if there's no candidate who comes into the convention with a
majority of the delegates, there's no rule that the delegates have to
nominate the front-runner or any other particular person.
I remember watching the political conventions back in the 1960s (I was
a political junkie at a young age), and it seemed like several times
there was speculation about candidates trying to run at the last
minute and securing the nomination from delegates. Since then,
however, the growth of the presidential primary has made that scenario
much less likely, and the conventions have become basically scripted
events. But in theory, it doesn't have to be that way.
There was such talk as recently as 1980, as this article points out:
Reagan's Rousing Return
This 1980 Time article discusses speculation that Gerald Ford would
hope for a deadlock at the national GOP convention that would turn to
The last time a national convention picked someone who didn't run in
the primaries was 1952 (before my time). Here's one account:
A Final Look at the Conventions
"The 1952 Democratic convention was the last presidential nominating
convention that went beyond the first ballot. The names of 11
candidates were placed in nomination, notably Sen. Estes Kefauver
(D-Tenn.), whose victory in the New Hampshire primary essentially
forced President Harry Truman out of the contest. Other hopefuls
included Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, New York businessman Averell
Harriman, and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a self-proclaimed
non-candidate who was nonetheless the favorite of many party leaders.
"Kefauver led after the first ballot, with Stevenson 67 votes behind.
After two ballots Kefauver gained in strength, but so did Stevenson,
and now he was within 38 votes of the Kefauver. Both Harriman and Gov.
Paul Dever, Massachusetts? favorite son, then withdrew and endorsed
Stevenson. By the third ballot, the Stevenson steamroller could not be
The last time that nominating conventions picked someone out of the
blue, so to speak, someone who wasn't a leading candidate going into
the conventions was in the 1920s. I'll except an account here,
although you should look at the full page to get the details:
Online Newshour Interview with Historian Michael Beschloss
"So the result was that as one approached a political convention for
most of the 19th century and for most of the 20th century until the
1960's, part of the drama was the fact that you didn't know ultimately
who was going to be the nominee at the end of that convention week.
"One example was the Republicans in Chicago, 1920. There was a
deadlock among a number of candidates, a number of ballots, until you
finally had leaders of the party retreating into the famous back
smoke-filled rooms, and that?s where that term first came from, in
which they decided on a dark horse, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio.
They agreed to throw their votes to him. And so the result was that
Harding, who was a figure whom many Americans had never heard of,
turned out to be the nominee at the end of that week...
"Four years later, 1924, the Democrats had roughly the same
experience, but they went actually through nine very hot days to 103
ballots, until they finally nominated John Davis, who was a rather
obscure West Virginia lawyer, as their compromise candidate..."
It is interesting to note that Hardin was a candidate who had not run
in the primaries:
"With the waning of the Progressive era, interest in presidential
primaries declined. Candidates tended to downgrade the presidential
primary during the 1920's and the 1930's. One reason may have been the
Republican fight in 1920, in which the three leading contenders all
competed vigorously in the primaries--only to see a deadlock develop
and the nomination go to Ohio's Warren Harding, the man chosen by
party bigwigs in a smoke-filled room."
Here is a 1999 article speculating on how things might have turned out
in 2000 (but obviously never did):
The Way It Should Have Been
"During the party's nominating convention next summer, the Democrats
would deadlock in a struggle between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Of
course, this would all be staged for the benefit of the television
networks to generate high ratings. On the fourth day of the
convention, the presumptive victor in the New York Senate race [John
F. Kennedy Jr.] would walk into the convention hall, and all heads
would turn. John-John would smile, wave, and chants of 'JFK! JFK!'
would build in an enormous crescendo. A star would be born; a
candidate would arise; a destiny would be fulfilled. 'The torch has
been passed to a new generation.' Camelot returns to the White House,
where it so rightfully belongs."
There has, of course, been speculation that Hillary Clinton herself
has envisioned such a scenario. Here's one example:
2004: Wishful Thinking? The Latest Hillary Scenario
"Some dreams never die, including one clung to by loyal Clintonistas:
that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the Democrats presidential
nominee next year. Is there a chance she would get into the race?
"That depends on what you mean by "get into the race",' one of her
closest friends and advisers explained to Newsweek.
"The scenario, as sketched by this hard-boiled insider, calls for
Clinton to make an entrance as healer and unifier at the end of the
primary season in May or June in the unlikely?but not impossible?event
that none of the existing contenders has amassed a majority of the
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Hillary fully intends to join the race, but hopefully on her own time
table--which is later rather than earlier.
"Hillary, like FDR in 1940, wants to be 'drafted' at the Democratic
Convention when the first ballot does not produce a nominee. But, of
course, for that to happen, Hillary must first make certain that there
is no clear cut winner going into the convention. Also, she has to
make sure that none of the campaigners get close enough to secure the
nomination with deal cutting on the floor before the first ballot is
cast. The Clintons accomplished that by persuading additional
candidates to join the fray."
Do I think such an outcome is likely? No. I think that convention
delegates, who are of course a partisan crowd wanting to see the
Democratic Party candidate win, would be extremely reluctant to
nominate someone who hadn't run in the primaries. I would think there
would also have to be extremely sharp ideological differences between
two or more factions of the party to make it impossible for one of the
garner a majority. I think the most likely scenario is that if no
candidate goes in with a majority, the candidates that are trailing
will drop out one by one until there are only one or two candidates
remaining, making it easier for someone to get a majority.
But could they turn to Hillary Clinton? There's no law or rule to stop
them. It could happen, and it would certainly be interesting to watch
if it does.
This answer was based on personal knowledge (I have a B.A. in
political science) supported by documents discovered through the
following Google searches:
"nominating convention" deadlock president
draft hillary deadlock convention