The national political conventions are a lot less glamorous than you might think.
That fact really sunk in for me in a South Philadelphia parking lot, as I trudged through a torrential afternoon storm and 90 degree heat, looking desperately for a poncho — which I had left behind in my free DNC tote bag — or an umbrella, which I also left behind at my lodgings.
I eventually found someone else’s discarded poncho, hastily put it on — immediately finding it to be uncomfortably, inexplicably sticky — and made the run to the convention arena, where I placed it on a giant pile of other discarded ponchos once inside. (It seemed like the thing to do.)
On TV, the conventions look so put together, slickly produced, ready-made for the history books.
The cameras don’t show the line of cars snaking, glacially, out of the convention arena at night, the politically incorrect graffiti in the men’s bathrooms, that mountain of forgotten ponchos, sticky with sweat and rain.
This year was my first time covering the conventions as a reporter, and the reality is — big shock here — they’re messy, chaotic, and absolutely fascinating.
Here’s what I’ll remember from two surreal, sweltering weeks in July.
For political nerds, the conventions are what you’d get if you combined the Super Bowl, Comic-Con, and the world’s largest networking happy hour into one. There’s a lot of admiration lavished upon people who don’t enjoy it too often — campaign has-beens, back-benching members of Congress, and campaign operatives anonymous outside the Beltway. I don’t think I would’ve seen Rick Santorum get mobbed by adoring fans anywhere else but the RNC.
You really never know who you’re going to see at these things. A short list of notables I spotted in person: Ann Coulter, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Samantha Bee, Newt Gingrich, and Dean Norris, better known as Hank Schrader from "Breaking Bad." I will remember rubbing elbows with Don King in Cleveland, who was talking aloud to anyone who would listen.
Politicians have awkward run-ins of their own at the conventions. On the last day of the DNC, I was watching Rep. Keith Ellison speak at a breakfast for the Arizona delegation and in walks Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — the guy who Ellison told me he wished would “shut up” after McAuliffe said that Hillary Clinton would probably approve some version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ellison looked up at McAuliffe and gave a “Hey, governor,” and moved on with his talk.
Much was made of the 15,000 members of the press who descended on both conventions. Yeah, it was probably too many. But I was struck by how many reporters from around the world made the trek, like the Slovenian TV crew I met in Cleveland — covering their native daughter, Melania Trump — and the Japanese newspapermen who had prime seats on the press stand at the RNC. (One of them spent most of the convention dozing off.)
Call it ironic, but the convention for the candidate that routinely blacklists reporters was an easier working environment for me. This may have owed to the Minnesota delegation being easy to access in the boonies of the RNC floor, but at the DNC, I encountered a lot of pushback from staff and ushers. At one point, I was trying to access a group of delegates sitting behind the Minnesota section. An usher blocked me and said I couldn’t go there. “They’re right there,” I said. “Please?” The usher was apologetic, but firm. “My one job,” she told me, “is to not let press in here.”
With so much press, some events had almost as many reporters as actual people — sometimes more. Some, like a rally in Cleveland hosted by prominent conspiracy theorist and “male vitality” expert Alex Jones, were designed to attract media attention. But the anti-Trump, anti-Clinton, anti-whatever protests in both cities were a magnet for reporters, who came to tell the story of massive demonstrations and conflict that largely didn’t materialize.
Conventions are really long — four packed days that start early and end late — and they probably shouldn’t be that long. Without a lot of substantive work to do — rules, platform, and candidate selection are all basically wrapped up before conventions are gaveled in — it makes you wonder, well, why? (Gawker has a good take on this that I came to agree with by day eight of convention coverage.)
From the point of view of a delegate, though, the conventions are basically four-day parties. You hang out with like-minded people from your state and elsewhere, make new friends and connections, and get wined and dined a ton — much of it for free. Who doesn’t want to spend an afternoon eating pulled pork on a boat with an open bar? (This was a Minnesota delegate event, and the hors d'oeuvres looked fine, too.)
Some of what happens at the convention makes more sense when you realize that some delegates have had a few too many. At various points at the convention — notably, the RNC — I ran into delegates who’d been more or less drinking all day. I’m not saying that the WWE-style crowd boo-down of Ted Cruz at the RNC was entirely booze-fueled, but a lot of people in that room had access to corporate-underwritten open bars that day.
2016 is a big moment for talking about money in politics, and both parties are now decrying its influence. In the world of the conventions, though, corporate America rules. Seemingly everything, right down to the lanyards, was slapped with some company’s logo; virtually every amenity, from the quotidian (wifi) to the lavish (luxury box) was brought to you by some corporation.
Delegates were privy to most of the free swag, but even lowly press were given a convention swag bag at the beginning. The DNC’s had goodies like travel mugs inside a stylish tote bag — liberal catnip. The RNC’s had virtually nothing of value (save for an umbrella, proudly made in China) inside a clear, tacky bag. Advantage: DNC.
The wifi in Philly sucked. Thanks, Comcast!
The workspace at the conventions isn’t always ideal. Reporters sitting cross-legged outside bathrooms and in stairwells was a common sight. At the DNC, I had it easy — they gave MinnPost a reserved seat in the press stand at the arena. At the RNC, they did not. Here’s where I spent two nights working:
People were working just as hard outside the arena as inside — maybe harder. Particularly in Cleveland, vendors were out from early until late to hawk their wares: buttons, shirts, and hats, which ranged from pro-Trump to anti-Hillary to unrelated Cleveland Cavaliers championship gear. A lot of that merch was overtly sexist, and the people selling it didn’t always love Trump, but hey, there were bucks to be made.
The parties promise big-time economic impact resulting from the conventions to sell skeptical residents on hosting them. The drivers and baristas and locals I spoke with in both cities, almost to a tee, felt that the reality fell far short of promises. “Dead as a doornail” was how I heard one Cleveland local describe the goings-on in town outside of the convention.
Much of the conventions are manufactured, phony political theater — which made the moments that did resonate on TV that much more meaningful in person. Most of the time, journalists sit stoic up in the press stand and bang away on their laptops; when Khizr Khan spoke, he had the entire room’s attention.
The political moments I’ll remember best mostly came through talking to the rank-and-file delegates. Regardless of who they supported, they made the trip: no matter how much free booze some enjoyed, they all took considerable time and money to show up. They just care a lot! It was kind of refreshing.
One delegate moment sticks in my mind. A college student I spoke with who called the DNC a “joke” stuck around the whole time, until Clinton’s speech — during which he held up a “Jill 2016” sign. He held it up the whole time, all 50-plus minutes of her speech.
Some delegates just show up to get their picture taken. I was working at the RNC at the same table as a middle-aged woman wearing a large, 1920s-era hat and holding a creepy porcelain doll. In the span of 20 minutes, she did two interviews, and several people took pictures of her. Never figured out what the doll was about.
It sucks to speak early at the convention — like, that four to six p.m. slot where delegates are still filling in and the West Coast TV audience is still out to lunch. DFL Rep. Peggy Flanagan, the second speaker out of several dozen on the last night of the DNC, gave a solid speech, but even some up front weren’t paying attention.
Not that many people pay attention during prime-time speeches, either — unless it was the nominee or someone notable. The RNC was short on notables — unless you count Scott Baio and a California avocado farmer as notables — and the only speakers who really commanded the room were Cruz and Trump. Even during the Trump speech, there was chatter. On the floor, I overheard someone say that they “needed shrooms.”
Each convention ends with a balloon drop. People love this balloon drop, anxiously looking heavenward all week — seriously — until the balloons, confined in the rafters, are released onto the crowd after the nominee’s speech. It’s anticlimactic and kinda lame, but there are worse ways to end a long week than watching Bill Clinton play with balloons.