Do conventions mean anything?

The changes and potential changes in this week’s convention schedule reveal a lot about the significance, or lack thereof, of party conventions in the contemporary era.

Hurricane Gustav has disrupted Republicans’ carefully choreographed convention plans. Monday night’s speeches were canceled, and the rest of the week’s schedule hinges on the storm’s path and its wrath.

The discussions surrounding scheduling make clear that the convention’s required business could be – and indeed may be – conducted in just a few hours. The potential for a severely truncated schedule reveals that the purposes of political conventions in the contemporary era are markedly different than have been in the past.

The first national party convention for the purpose of nominating presidential candidates occurred in 1832, when Democrats renominated President Andrew Jackson. The advent of nominating conventions was viewed as a democratizing reform allowing delegates from each state to determine the party’s nominee rather than the congressional caucus. 

The McGovern-Fraser reforms “democratized” the nominating process further. The reforms inspired a series of rules changes by many states that required most delegates in both parties to be chosen by voters in state primaries and caucuses rather than by party elites at the conventions beginning in 1972. These reforms occurred in the wake of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention. Leading up to the convention, Democrats competed in only 15 presidential preference primaries, and Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee without winning any of them. 

No suspense
In the contemporary era, this means that there is no suspense as to the outcome of the convention vote for the nominee. In a bygone era, delegates’ votes at party conventions actually determined the party nominee. In nine cases, delegates actually had to cast at least 10 ballots to before determining a nominee.     

What do conventions in the post-McGovern-Fraser era, then, actually decide? Today, in addition to formally ratifying the nomination of the president and vice president, convention delegates rule on potential credentials disputes, vote on changes in the party rules, and vote on the platform language. Even these seemingly minor decisions have the potential to generate intra-party controversy, but that is not the case this year.

The lack of important official business does not mean that conventions have no purpose. Conventions give the candidates at the top of the ticket opportunities to introduce, or reintroduce, themselves to voters – particularly those voters who have not paid much attention to the campaigns during the summer months. Indeed, it is particularly important for Republicans to introduce Sarah Palin to voters this year.

Attentive voters paying attention to both conventions will surely come away with a better understanding of important differences between the parties’ nominees.  Conventions also give governors and members of Congress a platform to reach beyond their states or districts and introduce themselves to a national audience, not to mention opportunities for fundraising at the convention. 

Declining TV coverage
Television coverage of conventions has declined in recent election cycles. This year, however, we seem to be witnessing somewhat of an uptick in media attention, both because of voters’ high interest in the election and cable’s broader reach. There is a downside to intense media coverage of conventions that make few real decisions, however.  The media love controversy — even if it means overstating it.
Conventions help the parties mobilize their base in the convention hall and in the electorate. Delegates who work tirelessly for the party at the state and local level are rewarded with opportunities to schmooze with the party elite.  The parties are numerous and lavish, and lobbyists revel in the opportunity to connect with political elites.

Even with a focus on Hurricane Gustav and a truncated convention schedule, it seems that the minimal convention business, the speeches, and the parties and other events that do occur will give Republicans opportunities to get their message out, which has become the real purpose of conventions anyway. The message, however, has been transformed into one of leadership in a crisis. Comparisons of Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina are inevitable: whether this will help or hurt the Republicans’ convention “bounce” remains to be seen. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Mark Lindner on 01/08/2009 - 01:58 pm.

    I realize that this is coming significantly after the convention, but, oh well.

    To me, the conventions have become a sort of “Pep Fest” for the parties. The drama of who is going to be nominated has disappeared, replaced by, as you stated, the chance to “give the candidates at the top of the ticket opportunities to introduce, or reintroduce, themselves to voters.”

    With the intense media of candidates, though, means that most candidates are front and center nearly 24 hours a day.

    The other purpose I see for the conventions, and one you did not address is to feature the rising stars of the party. Barack Obama was essentially unknown on a national level until he spoke at the 2004 DNC. After his stirring speech at that convention, he quickly hit the national spotlight.

    The Democrats did not use that approach this year (other than maybe highlighting Joe Biden’s son in case he has political aspirations). Of course, their rising star just reached the pinnacle, so it was less importance. But, I do not recall the Republicans featuring many young speakers (other than Palin, but her speech focused more on the immediate, rather than future needs).

    Any thoughts on this purpose of conventions?

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