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Do the Party Conventions Matter Anymore?

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012.

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012. Photo by Monkeyz_uncle. CC-SA.

This week Riding the Tiger will feature daily updates live from the Republican National Convention by Robert Saldin, Associate Professor of American Government and Politics at the University of Montana and a former Miller Center Fellow.

TAMPA, FL -- A hurricane has prompted the Republicans to cancel the opening night of their convention…again.  Four years ago, with Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the GOP scrapped day one of their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Not that anyone seemed to notice.  Most first night speakers were simply reassigned to Tuesday.  And with the star power backloaded into the final two nights, it wasn’t clear that anything substantive was lost.  This time is different only in that the Republicans find themselves in the storm’s path.

But with tonight now an official a no-go, it’s hard to find anyone here in Tampa who is too upset by the cancellation, even—or, perhaps, especially—among the delegates.  After all, the restaurants and bars are still open, and the hundreds of parties throughout the bay area are proceeding as planned.  Many attendees are enjoying some time on the beach in between rain showers.  And the television networks had never been planning to show up for the opening night.  Of course, the mood could change considerably if evacuations are announced or additional nights of the convention are curtailed or cancelled.  But as of now, the assembled partisans continue their party, now unburdened by tonight’s session at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Which raises the question: What’s the point of these conventions in the 21st Century?  Decades ago, party conventions played a substantive role in the presidential selection process, but now they’re routinely derided as overly-scripted, phony, campaign commercials.

It’s pretty hard to argue that today’s conventions hold much intrigue compared their often unpredictable forerunners from past generations.  Prior to 1972, it was common for presidential candidates to actually be chosen at the convention, often in those now-infamous “smoke-filled rooms.”  (Incidentally, Tampa—known as “the Cigar City”—would have been an ideal host for such a convention.)  But now the candidates are known months ahead of time, leaving today’s conventioneers with little to do beyond presiding over formalities and politely observing well choreographed speeches.

The conventions definitively changed after the Democrats’ chaotic 1968 gathering in Chicago where the party nominated sitting Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.  For the passionate anti-war forces that had rallied around Senators Eugene McCarthy and the martyred Robert Kennedy in that year’s limited slate of primaries, Humphrey’s victory was a bitter dose of reality.  The young and liberal “new politics” faction of the party saw Humphrey’s victory as illegitimate and anti-democratic—the product of backroom deals made by party bosses, including the reviled Lyndon Johnson.  Though subsequent analyses indicated that impartial delegate counts would have handed the nomination to Humphrey even if Kennedy had lived, complaints about the process triggered the formation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission to study and make recommendations concerning the Democrats’ nomination process.

The Commission ultimately insisted that the party implement an open and transparent delegate selection process and establish quotas to ensure that “minority groups, young people, and women [serve as delegates] in reasonable relationship to their presence in the population of the State.”  State parties responded by instituting more primaries to curtail challenges to their delegations.  Meanwhile, the Republicans—fearing a public relations debacle—quickly followed suit.  The current system is a product of these key institutional changes that were grounded in the idea that mass opinion—rather than party elites—should determine the parties’ presidential candidates.

            Ever since, political scientists have debated the extent to which this shift upended presidential elections and whether the change has been good or bad.  But one clear effect has been to sap some of the drama from the national conventions.  For better or worse, we don’t see dozens of ballots or the general sense of pandemonium that often accompanied old-style conventions.

Nonetheless, the parties’ national conventions retain a key role in presidential elections.  Most importantly, the conventions offer the parties and their candidates a rare, unmediated opportunity to present themselves to the American public.  For at least a few hours, television anchors, five second sound bites, and pairs of oppositional talking heads take a back seat to the candidates and their message.  As such, the conventions—like the running mate selection and the fall debates—offer a rare opportunity to shift the orienting dynamic of the campaign.  And in contrast to hysterical Super PAC advertisements and similar distractions that often dominate our political campaigns, the conventions allow for a much more substantive engagement with the parties philosophies and ideas for public policy.

            But even if party conventions remain an important feature of presidential campaigns, they may no longer require the traditional four day slate of events.  In fact, when the Democrats sharply curtail their opening day next week in Charlotte in deference to Labor Day, it will mark the third major party convention in a row (dating back to the GOP’s 2008 gathering) that is restricted to three days.  Maybe even two days would be sufficient.  And, for that matter, perhaps all of this could simply take place in a Washington, DC ballroom.  But however many days and whatever the location, the political conventions offer the party’s most loyal and committed members a rare chance to gather and an unequaled opportunity to take their case to the voters.  No campaign rally, TV ad, or Meet the Press appearance can substitute.

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