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Understanding the party conventions in the US

August 1, 2012

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

At the end of August of 2008, John McCain stunned the political world by choosing former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate for the White House. It was a daring move by the Arizona Senator and Republican presidential candidate, one that, it turns out, didn’t pay off. But it did spark a great deal of interest for the weeks that followed. In particular, McCain’s decision, and Palin’s debut on the national political stage, dominated the Republican National Convention that took place in Minneapolis-Saint Paul immediately thereafter.

The episode illustrates the meaning of conventions today. With the primary election process almost exclusively dedicated to the selection of both the Democratic and Republican nominees, these quadrennial meetings have turned into little more than flashy and expensive advertisements for the parties. However, they remain one of the key moments of any election year and, officially, they kick off the last crucial stretch of the campaign season. “Conventions are TV spectaculars, designed to give publicity to the candidate, launch the campaign, and create enthusiasm among the delegates,” says Stephen Wayne, Professor at Georgetown University and an expert on the American Presidency. “They alert the electorate that the campaign is about to begin, but it has already been going on for quite some time.”

The rather unique American system of party conventions dates back to 1831, when the Anti-Masonic Party, a single-issue party that opposed Freemasonry, held the first meeting of this kind. The Democratic Party followed suit in 1832 and the Republican Party in the mid-1850’s.

Originally, conventions were tasked with deciding the most serious of election matters. Party members, or delegates, would flock into the hosting city from all over the country and decide, in ballot after ballot, the nominees for president and vice-president. They also voted to adopt a platform, a statement of political intent signaling to the rest of the country what priories the leadership would pursue if elected to office. Nobody knew, at the beginning of a convention, how things would turn out. “With the rise of television, the parties became concerned to present a good face to the public and the proceedings became more and more scripted,” says Lewis Gould, Professor of American History at the University of Texas. “Since candidates won delegates in primaries, most of the suspense was absent from the conventions by the 1980s and, as the conventions became staged events, they lost substance.”

Today, delegates continue to hold symbolic ballots at the convention. But they are strictly pledged to one or the other candidate depending on the results of the primaries. Therefore there is never any need for multiple rounds of voting, which instead used to be a common feature of the past. The last Republican candidate who needed more than one vote to clinch the nomination was Tom Dewey in 1948 (it took him three ballots.) For the Democrats, it was Adlai Stevenson in 1952 (also three ballots.) The all-time record belongs to the 1924 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in New York City, when delegates took 103 ballots to nominate John Davies (Davies went on to lose against incumbent Calvin Coolidge.) The 1924 DNC holds another record as well, as the longest convention ever, running 16 consecutive days.

The threat of a brokered convention did emerge again this year. By early spring, none of the three Republican candidates in the race at the time (Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) seemed capable of winning a majority of the 1144 delegates needed to become the nominee. But it never materialized. Santorum and Gingrich soon dropped out leaving Romney uncontested.

The former Massachusetts governor will be the star of this year’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Florida, and will officially accept the GOP nomination with a primetime speech on the last day of the meetings (also the case for President Barack Obama at the DNC in Charlotte, North Carolina.) However, this is a relatively recent development. Originally, conventions were seen as a venue for party activists to gather. Candidates didn’t even show up. Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first to accept the nomination in person in 1932. On the Republican side, this had to wait until Tom Dewey in 1944.

Starting in the 1940s, the advent of TV brought renewed media and public attention to party conventions. The first ever to be televised was the 1940 RNC in Philadelphia. Live broadcasts began a few years later, in 1948. Predictably, media coverage and ratings grew exponentially for a few years. Surprisingly though, they began to decline steadily as soon as the mid 1960s, once conventions stopped functioning as the venue where nominees were actually decided and simply turned into staged celebrations.

Overall, the significance of conventions varies from case to case, depending on the mood of the country and the relative strength of candidates in the run. Therefore, determining which might have been the most important isn’t easy. “For the Republicans, I’d say 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was nominated, since it assured that the party would grow [the GOP was founded in 1854) and it provided the greatest Republican leader,” says Professor Gould. “For the Democrats, I’d say 1912 which nominated Woodrow Wilson and launched the modern Democratic Party.”

The most controversial and violent convention ever was the 1968 DNC in Chicago, where thousands of demonstrators gathered outside a heavily protected International Amphitheatre to protest the Vietnam War and the Democratic leadership that had supported it (retiring President Lyndon B. Johnson’s second-in-command Hubert Humphrey ended up being nominated, to the disappointment of many.) Another contentious gathering, although to a much lesser extent, was the 1912 RNC in Chicago, pitching former President Theodore Roosevelt against William Howard Taft (who won.)

Since the presidential nominee is now known well in advance, the choice of a running mate, which often happens on or around the dates of a convention, has become the most closely watched announcement coming out of these political gatherings. Alongside Sarah Palin, other vice-presidential picks have been fodder for critics in the past, for example George H.W. Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 and Walter Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. “Neither proved to be a strong candidate,” says Professor Wayne. “Quayle was not very smart and Ferraro and her husband had some ethical issues.”

Expectations are particularly low for this year’s conventions. On the Democratic side, organizers are mired in financial troubles and the Barack Obama-Joe Biden ticket is a repeat from four years ago, a combination that will make for a far cry from the electrifying 2008 convention in Denver, Colorado. On the Republican side, Romney has failed to truly excite the party base. In order to avoid repeating the same mistake as McCain’s with Palin, he is also expected to decide on a non-controversial running mate, a safe choice but potentially tedious for activists and voters alike (he is also said to be considering an early pick, which would further undermine the importance of the convention.) All in all, Americans might want to save their fireworks for another occasion.

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