Political Conventions: Not Much Drama, But Still Important

Political conventions have become highly scripted affairs, but they're still critical to the democratic process.

If the Republican and Democratic conventions seem like long-drawn-out, made-for-TV campaign rallies, it’s because they are.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t play key roles in the democratic process.

“They’re symbolic events, but symbols are very important in politics,” said Michael Heaney, a convention scholar at the University of Michigan. “Each party will try to use their convention as a symbol of what the party stands for, and use it to explain to the public what it’s all about.”

That was not how they were originally intended. Through the 1960s, the conventions’ main purpose was to nominate each party’s candidate for president. That generated lots of genuine, unscripted drama that at best resembled British parliamentary debates and at worst circuses. Convention floors churned with angry interruptions and outright fights -- not the kind of behavior that party leaders wanted the American public to see. Which was why, after television began covering them, the shouting was kept behind closed doors and the protesters pushed outside.

That coincided with a movement to give more voice to rank-and-file party members in the nominating process. The modern primary system was born. The conventions remained the place where delegates formally nominated their candidates, but they evolved into intensely planned events aimed at projecting a cohesive campaign image.

Now we know just about everything that’s going to happen beforehand, including speeches timed for primetime television. More than 15,000 journalists are expected to cover each of this year’s conventions (the Republicans in Tampa Aug. 27-30, and the Democrats in Charlotte Sept. 3-6). That’s roughly three times the number of delegates who’ll attend.

“The purpose a convention serves today is to present the party to the rest of the nation,” said Seth Masket, who researches elections at the University of Denver. “You say, ‘This is who our people are,’ and you have four days to lay out the argument why your side should be elected.”

Conventions also serve an important purpose within the party, as delegates who normally do not come together under the same roof discuss future policy positions and pass new rules, Heaney said.
Typically, the Democratic convention includes caucuses representing various demographic and ethnic groups. The GOP convention organizes its meetings according to state delegations.

Another benefit is that, for the better part of a week, your side eats up a disproportionate amount of media coverage, Masket said. That feeds what is known as the “convention bounce,” a surge of support in the polls in the days following the event.

Once in a while, you get a little dissent. Like in 2008, when some Hillary Clinton supporters went into the Democratic convention still pushing for her to get the nomination. Masket said he’ll watch for some sort of clamoring by Ron Paul loyalists in Tampa, and defiance in Charlotte from Democrats unhappy with President Obama’s handling of the war on terror.

“I’m always curious to see how the party tries to get over those differences at the convention,” Masket said.

But for the most part, we know what to expect. The only real moments of unpredictability will occur outside the convention halls, where the protestors will be. How they behave, and how the police deal with them, could divert the media’s attention from the script.

(Of course, Tropical Storm Isaac is also adding a new element of unpredictability, as forecasters try to determine if it will dump a lot of rain on the Republican convention Monday or do much worse.)

Finally, after the last convention day, the campaign between Obama and Mitt Romney begins in earnest (although it already seems to be running at full steam).

“People start paying a lot more attention to who the candidates are,” Heaney said. “If someone is still undecided during the conventions, they’ll start making up their minds.“

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