Fix America’s Political Party Conventions By Making Them Much Shorter

The quadrennial political conventions have become, long, boring, tedious, and largely predetermined. It's time to shake things up by making them a lot shorter.

In a week’s time, Republicans from around the nation, reporters, and several bloggers I know personally (no, not me) will be heading to Tampa for the 40th Republican National Convention. A week later, many of those same reporters and bloggers will join Democrats around the nation for the 46th Democratic National Convention. Aside from the speeches by party up and comers like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Elizabeth Warren, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and of course the parties, there really will be nothing interesting going on in either convention hall. We already know that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be the Republican nominees for President and Vice-President  and that Barack Obama and Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominees. Indeed, as David Frum points out at The Daily Beast today, it’s been a long time since any American political convention has been the least bit interesting:

At an American conference, nothing much happens until late afternoon. The days are given over to private meetings at coffee shops—and of course the most demanding task: nursing hangovers from the night before.

U.S. political conventions are big, expensive, corrupting wastes of time. But they could be saved and made useful again with one simple reform.

Conventions used to have a purpose: choose the party’s candidates for president and vice president. But the last convention at which there was any uncertainty at all was the Republican convention of 1976. The last convention where any decision making took place was the 1960 Democratic convention. The last convention to go beyond a single ballot: the Democratic convention of 1952.

Today, conventions ratify decisions made long ago and in other places. That makes for boring television, so the cameras go searching for other things to cover: gaffes, mistakes, disagreements. The politicians in control of the conventions respond to the gaffe hunt by imposing ever stricter control on every aspect of the show—making the show even more boring and pointless.

Increasingly, the real action moves off-site, to the lavish parties and receptions paid for by big corporate donors: cruises, cigar nights, martini mixers. Nobody pays for a thousand expensive cigars without expecting something in return—and checking whether he gets it.

This isn’t just a matter of making television more interesting the last two weeks of August every four years. As I noted back in May, through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, the Federal Government gives both major political parties, and only those political parties, up to $30 million each every four years to offset some of the costs of staging them the convention (although not all of them, hence the massive corporate and lobbyist donations to both parties.) In addition to that, Federal, State, and local authorities also pick up a large portion of the costs of providing security for the the events, something which I obviously do not begrudge. There’s also a rather obvious public interest in the potentially corrupting influence of accepting large amounts of corporate money and swag to finance what is, in the end, little more than a four day Bacchanalia festival.

This is part of the reason that you’ve seen most of the broadcast networks cut back on their coverage of political conventions. I remember watching the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1980, the days before cable news, and all three major networks essentially had gavel to gavel coverage of every night of the conventions. They broadcast all the speeches and, in some cases, even some of the meaningless procedural things that go on at these events. Even by 1980, though, there were very few truly memorable events going on that rivaled what occurred at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or the 1972 Democratic Convention, which seemed to just make the disaster that would be the George McGovern campaign inevitable. Eventually, the networks caught on to the fact that they were essentially giving the political parties free television time for four nights in a row and began to cut back on their coverage on nights other than those involving nomination of the candidates and the candidates speeches. In recent years, some nights have merited only a single hour of coverage on the broadcast networks. Cable news networks have picked up the slack somewhat, but even there you’re going to see producers switching away from convention coverage to in-studio talking heads when their isn’t anything particularly interesting going on. The people who really want to watch gavel-to-gavel coverage, of course, always have C-Span, but for the most part viewership of the convention coverage has been declining steadily over the years.

With all of this in mind, Frum has this proposal:

Thus my proposed reform: split the conventions in two. In a presidential year, cut the proceedings to a one-day show—three hours of prime-time television for speeches by the presidential nominee, the vice-presidential nominee, and a keynoter, supported by public funds.

Then, the next year, the first year after a presidential election, let the parties run their own shows.

At such a distance from the next presidential vote, TV interest will be slight. C-Span will come, but otherwise, the proceedings will happen off-camera. Which means that the parties can relax their control and allow real discussion of real issues, as happens at party conferences in other democracies.

Frum bases this proposal on his experience attending a British party convention, where the political activities are limited to a day or two and the rest of the time is spent talking policy issues and putting together a governing platform. The difference, of course, is that political parties serve a different role in Parliamentary democracies than they do in the United States. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that the RNC and DNC are merely the national umbrella organizations for a 50-state coalition of party organizations, each of which have their own conventions on an annual or semi-annual basis. I’m not sure what the purpose of the additional “post-Presidential” convention would really be, especially if it’s being held by the party that won the Presidency the previous year. In that case, all the policy making is being made in the White House.

Nonetheless, Frum is on to something with regard to shortening these typically uninteresting wastes of time. Get rid of the pagentry. Get rid of the unnecessary speakers. Make it, at most a two-day event featuring the nominees and a keynote speaker representing the future of the party. Most importantly, get rid of the Federal subsidies through the PECF. These conventions are decided long before the open, and become pretty tedious once they start. It’s time to make them a lot shorter.

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Nonetheless, Frum is on to something with regard to shortening these typically uninteresting wastes of time. Get rid of the pagentry. Get rid of the unnecessary speakers. Make it, at most a two-day event featuring the nominees and a keynote speaker representing the future of the party. Most importantly, get rid of the Federal subsidies through the PECF. These conventions are decided long before the open, and become pretty tedious once they start.

    I’m a politics junkie yet I find myself watching very little of the conventions any more. They’re bloated spectacles, with constant breaks, and predictable narratives. Party devotees watch it the way a Yankee fan watches a game, everyone else watches it waiting for a major gaffe.

    Get rid of the PECF funding and let the whole thing be bought and sold by major donors. That at least, would be more honest. In fact, move the whole thing over to pay-for-view and see if they can come up with a better show. That would also be a great way to raise campaign funds, right?

  2. Clanton says:

    Here is an idea: just do away with them unless there is some sort of deadlock. These do nothing but waste a lot of money and cause a lot of expense and trouble for the cities they are held in. Who remembers these things anyway? I remember the famous GOP convention at the Cow Palace and the Chicago disaster of 1968: if it had not been such a mess with those demonstrators disrupting everything, Humphrey would have won the election over Nixon.

  3. There are ways they could make them more TV attractive. Move boring stuff to CSPAN. Start with warm-up pols in the evening, and one keynote per night. Then do a balloon drop and go to live bands. Then maybe a late-night host and an after-hours thing. Picking a late night host to do his show from the convention might work.

    People tune in to watch much worse than that all the time.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Clanton: I think you should assign some of the blame to the Chicago police.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    Don’t forget the collateral damage caused by these conventions especially when they’re held in an inappropriate place like Tampa. Downtown is closed for regular business all next week. Security and traffic issues. This is not good for people who can’t take the week off from work.

  6. stonetools says:

    I say boil down the convention to one day. Nothing significant happens at conventions these days anyway.

  7. beth says:

    We’ve recently learned that Donald Trump is planning a surprise involving an Obama impersonator (which will undoubtebly involve “you’re fired”) and the DNC is “casting” for real people with compelling stories. I fear the political parties have taken a look at the ratings for reality tv and decided to go with that model. I’d be glad to not have to watch any of that.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    These conventions are decided long before the open, and become pretty tedious once they start.

    Saaaayy. here’s an idea, we could just ignore them?

    @john personna:

    There are ways they could make them more TV attractive.

    Putting undercover cameras in all the strip joints and wires on all the prostitutes would be a good start.

  9. ratufa says:

    Political conventions are run for the benefit of the political parties putting them on. Until the parties believe that the current system is not to their benefit, things are unlikely to change.

    This was amusing though:

    There’s also a rather obvious public interest in the potentially corrupting influence of accepting large amounts of corporate money and swag to finance what is, in the end, little more than a four day Bacchanalia festival.

    It’s like being concerned that some of the porn stars attending an AVN convention are so immodestly dressed that it might damage their reputation.

  10. Murray says:

    “…get rid of the Federal subsidies through the PECF”

    And that is where the fit hits the shan. Federal subsidies for these unnecessary events is perhaps the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree upon.

  11. John Cole says:

    The SuperBowl lasts three hours and more people care. I think the conventions would survive just fine with three hours of coverage. The rest of the convention can go on for weeks for all I care, and can be treated by the cable news networks the way ESPN spends the two weeks covering the SB. But then again, I am an agoraphobic misanthrope who would rather shower in prison than go to a week long political convention.

  12. Brett says:

    @Clanton:

    I’m just in favor of letting the respective political Parties pay for them. If they want to hold a two-day publicity stunt to promote both their choice for President as well as prospective candidates down the line, then they should pay for it themselves.

    My guess is that you’d either see them severely curtailed or canceled outright.

  13. Kolohe says:

    Isn’t Linda McMahon a Republican? Get her husband to run the convention.

  14. Kolohe says:

    I mean, if anyone knows how to put on a show where the fix is in and everyone is corrupt…

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @John Cole:

    But then again, I am an agoraphobic misanthrope who would rather shower in prison than go to a week long political convention.

    Heeheeheeheh. Thanx John, I needed that.

  16. Septimius says:

    We should definitely shorten the conventions. The tens of thousands of people who travel across the country to attend their respective events can suck it. David Frum and Doug Mataconis think they’re a waste of time!

  17. jan says:

    Most people don’t follow politics all that much. They gather bits and pieces from whatever news they watch, or publications they read. However, oftentimes it is the political conventions where they are introduced to people, platforms, and updated issues. It also is a place that energizes the vote for November. It is an especially optimal event, comprising massive exposure, to roll out new political faces. Look what it did for Obama!

    So, while I don’t watch too much of either convention, I don’t begrudge the learning experience it gives others to see the candidates, and experience the atmosphere of pure party politics that each convention has to offer.

  18. Davebo says:

    Don’t forget the collateral damage caused by these conventions especially when they’re held in an inappropriate place like Tampa. Downtown is closed for regular business all next week.

    Closed? Link?

  19. superdestroyer says:

    As the U.S. becomes a one party state, why even have a convention a couple of months before a moot election.

    What the Democrats should be doing is changing their nominating system so most of Americans have a chance of votng for the nominee instead of leaving it to Iowa and New Hampshire to decide who will be the next president.

  20. Woody says:

    I’m pleased that you noted the basic difference in convention usefulness between a parliamentary system and ours. Most Americans don’t seem to realize there are at least 51 different Democratic and Republican party organizations in the U.S. I believe this to be an underrated strength.

    As for the conventions, yes, they tend to be tedious infomercials that only FNC, MSNBC, and CNN will fully carry.

    However, look at the positive side – the conventions are still more interesting – and informative – than 90% of what the cable channels would broadcast in its place.

  21. rudderpedals says:

    @Davebo: Closed 🙁 Try here for a start. If you have a specific destination google further because there are a lot of individual closings.