Time Of Get Rid Of Political Conventions?

The political convention we know is a 19th Century relic. It's time to modernize it and make it a lot shorter.

Writing at The Week, Ed Morrissey argues that it’s time to get rid of that great quadrennial American political tradition, the party nominating convention:

The quadrennial national conventions hearken back to bygone days of American elections. Conventions have been romanticized in films like The Best Man, in which Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson slugged it out for the party’s nomination in a tough floor fight, only to have their dirty machinations enable a cleaner candidate to emerge as the winner. The Manchurian Candidate takes a much less romantic view, but again frames conventions as a forum for the critical choice of nominees.

Let’s face it: The days when conventions controlled party nominations for the presidency have long since passed. Although every four years the political media wishes for an open convention, the last year in which a major-party nominee had to win the nod at a brokered convention was 1952, and the last time a nominee from a brokered convention actually won the general election was 1932 — 80 years ago. Ever since, the primary/caucus system has produced clear nominees for first-ballot victories, most of those pro-forma events.

Even when the national conventions did have the power to pick nominees, the process was anything but savory. State parties used the caucus system to choose delegates in the same manner that they chose nominees for state and local offices, a system that was rife with corruption and still to this day produces confusion and disarray. The primary system and the secret ballot provided much-needed reform to the electoral process at every level of politics, and a full adoption of the primary system along with bound delegates would make the conventions completely unnecessary in most cases, at least in terms of nominating presidential candidates.

As Morrissey goes on to note, there is some important party business that does get at these conventions. A platform gets adopted, for one thing, although the actual importance of that platform to the future and to the Administration of the nominee should he become President is actually pretty dubious. After all, the GOP has had essentially the same language about a Human Life Amendment in its platform for thirty years and yet none of the three Presidents it has elected in that period has ever seriously pursued its adoption or put his weight behind the typically-ignored version of the HLA that some Member of Congress inevitably sponsors at the beginning of every Congress. The same goes for many other provisions of the Republican platform, and many provisions of the Democratic platform. The convention also adopts a new set of  governing rules that will spell out how the primaries to take place four years hence will be run. Both of these are important events, but neither of them exactly make for compelling television unless your idea of entertainment is reading “Roberts Rules Of Order” before you go to bed every night.

Essentially, though, what Ed is calling for is a separation of nomination process and the business-of-the-party that takes place at a convention by eliminating caucuses and requiring that all delegates would be bound in accordance with the results of that primary. This would make the nomination process at the convention even more of a pro forma process than it already is, and would likely lead to even less television coverage of conventions. But, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Mike Murphy suggested yesterday something a step short of eliminating the conventions by arguing that the public portion of the events should be truncated to a single day:

Of course, a candidate’s acceptance speech is a huge deal, with a big audience and a potentially powerful impact. Along with the three fall debates, the convention speech is one of the four most important hours of an entire campaign.

So keep the two big TV speeches. But do we really need four days — three if you decide to hold a convention in the Gulf during hurricane season — to get there? Do we really need the droning speech by the guy who lost or the first-ever Laotian American state representative or the union howler who is a teleprompter for predictable outrage over the other party’s entitlement plan? Why not cut the conventions down to the commercials they are and focus on the stars? Why not focus on two tight prime-time hours, held on one night or even across two nights? Hour one: Stinkerfest, why the other guy is so horrible (maybe in 3-D for 2016!). Hour two: the ticket is introduced and the candidates speak. Balloons drop, the nation is saved, back to the campaign trail. The supersize four-day conventions made great sense in 1920.

But it’s time for an update.

Molly Ball at The Atlantic pushes back on these notions by pointing out that, despite the fact that they no longer play a significant role in picking the Presidential or Vice-Presidential nominee, and are unlikely to do so in the future, conventions still play an important role:

Sure, the conventions are a manufactured event, more infomercial than news, with nothing of consequence decided. But here’s why you shouldn’t be too cynical about them.

* They’re for the delegates: To the thousands of delegates and alternates who will formally nominate Romney today and cheer his speech from the floor Thursday, a political convention is much like a convention in any other industry — a chance to exchange information and hone their craft. Talking to delegates, from the 10-time veteran to the first-time participant, you get a sense of the grassroots energy that powers American politics at the most basic level.

* They’re for the voters at home: Tens of millions of viewers will tune in to see the primetime speeches of Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. It’s a rare chance to see the candidates unfiltered, as they wish to be seen, and the way they present themselves sends an important, if one-sided, message. A CBS poll out Tuesday found 32 percent of voters are still undecided about Romney, making his convention speech a potentially crucial introduction.

* They’re for history: Formalities like the party platform don’t actually dictate what politicians on either side believe — Romney, for example, has said he disagrees with the GOP platform’s no-exceptions opposition to abortion. But they, along with the speeches, are significant in tracking the movement of the parties over time. This year, the Democratic platform will include a plank supporting gay marriage for the first time ever.

* They launch stars: Then-state legislator Barack Obama’s 2004 convention keynote catapulted him to national political stardom. Vicepresidential nominee Sarah Palin’s 2008 speech, in which she inserted an ad-lib line about hockey moms, pit bulls, and lipstick, created a sensation and presaged her role as a hard-charging provocateur. This year, Republican up-and-comers such as Chris Christie, who will deliver the keynote; Marco Rubio, who is slated to introduce Romney; and a host of lesser-knowns will be hoping to make an impression. If history is any guide, by the time the confetti has fallen and the balloons have been dropped from the ceiling, there will be a new name on the lips of the political world.

Ball has some good points here. There is some value for the party itself in having its activists together in one location for a week right before the General Election campaign kicks off, although I would submit that value tends to diminish the more that campaigning and interacting with other activists become more of an online activity than an in-person one. That may be a reason why parties would prefer to adopt Murphy’s idea of a one day public convention, followed presumably by a day where convention business can get done for the benefit of C-Span cameras. The remaining reasons, though, really don’t seem to me to hold much weight.

There’s really very little evidence that these conventions are going to have a significant impact on voters decisions, especially not this year. A recent Rasmussen poll found that the number of people who will be paying attention to the conventions is actually pretty low:

Most voters won’t be watching much of the upcoming national political conventions, and over one-third of independent voters plan to tune them out completely.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 11% of Likely Voters plan to watch all of the GOP convention and another 16% who will watch most. A plurality (44%) expects to watch some of it, and 24% more won’t watch any of the GOP convention held in Tampa, Florida.

Most likely, the nights that will get the most attention from voters will be the final night of each respective convention when the candidates themselves speak. The other nights will probably only really be popular viewing for partisans and political junkies, a description that does not typically fit the average American or the average undecided voter.

Some will point to history and the so-called “convention bounce” for the idea that the conventions do have an impact on voter behavior, and there have been times, most notably in 1988 after the Republican National Convention, when a convention has had a significant impact on the course and tone of a race. However, a recent Gallup survey found that, since 1952, the candidate who was leading before the conventions ended up winning the election 12 out of 15 times, or 80 percent of the time. The three exceptions are 1988 when the Republican Convention eviscerated what had seemed like an insurmountable Mike Dukakis lead, 1992 when George H.W. Bush was leading Bill Clinton before the conventions before the conventions but lost the election, and 2004 when John Kerry had a slight four point lead over George W. Bush before the convention but lost the election. So, the idea that conventions change the course of a race isn’t supported by history.

Ball’s comment about history is interesting, but ultimately unimportant.

As for her final comment that the conventions have allowed stars to emerge, I think Ed Morrissey addresses that fairly well:

In the evenings, of course, conventions feature more provocative fare — politicians giving speeches. Before the advent of the internet, this may have provided a novelty for some Americans, who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to see a potential nominee speak at length, having had to satisfy themselves instead with sound bites provided by local and national news broadcasters. Today, however, every speech given by a politician lives forever on their websites, YouTube channels, Tumblr pages, and Facebook accounts. Not only can voters watch speeches at their own pace, they can also watch commentary on the speeches, read the transcripts, and debate their meaning on social-networking platforms — all with or without a national convention.

Not only that, but the Internet allows for those speeches to go viral, and be exposed to more eyeballs than any convention speech ever would be. Of course, the convention also provides an opportunity for candidates for Congress and the Senate to give short speeches to the delegates that many of them then turn into campaign ads, but in the age of YouTube, the ability to turn a speech into an ad is really rather easy and I don’t think the voters back home really care if their candidate spoke at a convention or not.

I wouldn’t go as far as Ed Morrissey and eliminate conventions entirely. I think they do serve some useful purposes both for the political parties and for the election process. However, there’s no need anymore for a three or four day gab-fest that the vast majority of Americans pay little or no attention to. Cut it down to one day as Mike Murphy suggests. Cut the public part of the convention down to one day. Keynote speaker, a few top party guys, the two nominees, then the balloon drop and music. It’ll save everyone a lot of time and money.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Blue Shark says:

    Time Of Get Rid Of Political Conventions?


    …They can take the Republican party with them.

  2. CSK says:

    Conventions may be past their use-by date, but I don’t see them vanishing any time soon. I always thought they were more a chance for people to party and get some payback for the work they did on behalf of the party and the nominee. And the attendees WANT that. A lot of them get the chance to do stuff they couldn’t do at home: get drunk, get wasted, get a lap dance.

    Compare conventions to inaugural balls. Everybody in his right mind knows they’re awful, but nobody in his right mind would cancel them.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    The death of the conventions was cable TV. When people had 3 or 4 channels if the networks covered the party conventions they had little choice but to watch. Most people now have 120 channels, Netflix and streaming video. No need to watch and few do. The over the air networks are giving the conventions an hour a night and that is a money loser for them.

  4. @Ron Beasley:

    The death of the conventions was cable TV.

    This is true. Although, it is largely true of any mass watched television event.

    Not including Super Bowls, the most watched television broadcast of all time was the final episode of MASH, and that happened in 1982. That night, 105 million people tuned in. With the plethora of media choices today, that’s unlikely to happen for anything that’s not a news event or, well, the Super Bowl.

  5. James H says:

    I will have you know that Ed Rendell’s speech about fossil fuel futures at the 2004 convention was the most riveting speech about fossil fuel futures that I have ever heard.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I watched the ’68 Democratic convention. That’s awfully hard to top.

  7. @michael reynolds:

    Well, Chicago cops beating people in the streets is kind of hard to top.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I watched the ’68 Democratic convention. That’s awfully hard to top.

    At least it was unscripted and spontaneous.

    Also, apart from the mayhem outside the convention, there was plenty going on inside too. At one point Senator Abraham Ribicoff (CT) created controversy by accusing Mayor Richard Daley of using “gestapo” tactics in the streets outside the Convention Hall. Daley was incensed and he shook his fist at Ribicoff and said (you could read the lips) sit down you f***ing Jew.” At which point Ribicoff said something like “you can’t handle the truth.”

    1968 was the most “interesting” year in my life.

  9. bill says:

    i really tried watching msnbc’s coverage, it’s a total joke. i couldn’t hang long enough to watch newt bust whatshisfaces balls….but saw it later. “you’re racists” ….what an idiot.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: It’s probably before your time but I remember when it wasn’t already a done deal when the convention started – it’s not really news anymore.

  11. Modulo Myself says:

    I remember being annoyed in 1988 when my parents and grandparents wouldn’t let me watch the MTV alternative (Randy of the Redwoods) to what the RNC was showing (George Bush I). And I remember being sixteen and delivering what I thought were arch putdowns in the television room as Pat Buchanan spoke in the 1992 convention. These putdowns were mainly intended to piss off my Republican mother. (She’s now a white version of Angela Davis with grandchildren and a condo.)

    I think once the people who had a formative political experience watching the conventions on television, rather than computers, give up caring, then the conventions will go. There was a certain feel that I remember to election year August. It definitely isn’t there now, for me, and I doubt for many, but we tend to chase our memories…

  12. KansasMom says:

    @Modulo Myself: My first political advocacy experience was trying to get my middle school to write in Randy from the Redwoods in our mock election. I was winning until my history teacher (my favorite teacher ever) told me they wouldn’t count Randy votes. My classmates in an uber-conservative Kansas small town voted for Dukakis instead.

  13. Jared says:

    i think whats being lost is more than just a show if you remove a convention. You are removing the value of the republic. The idea that the minority gets heard and isn’t drown out by the majority. Even though that is seemingly happened anyway…

  14. Rob in CT says:

    I’d be fine with it, as I have no use for the things in the first place. Which, in turn, means they aren’t for/about me. Which then means what I want doesn’t matter. 😉

    They’re glorified pep rallies, as you said before.