Are Political Conventions Obsolete?

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Mr. Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of ERNEST GRUENING AND THE AMERICAN DISSENTING TRADITION (1998) and a writer for the History News Service. He is a member of HNN's blog, Cliopatria.

A few weeks ago, John Kerry considered delaying acceptance of the presidential nomination until after the Democratic convention. The Massachusetts senator ultimately rejected the idea, but his even considering it raised yet again the question of what role political conventions serve.

Conventions once were the high point of drama in the political world. The Democratic convention of 1960 opened with the nominee's identity uncertain; at previous conventions, delegates, voting their conscience, often went through many ballots before choosing a nominee. They thrashed out other important issues as well. In 1964, Democrats debated the seating of segregated state delegations. In 1968 at Chicago, the Democrats battled over the party's stance on the Vietnam War. And in 1980, the Republicans, for the first time, inserted an anti-abortion plank into their party platform.

Procedural changes designed to allow the voters rather than the party bosses to select presidential nominees changed the character of conventions. Now, all important issues relating to procedures and the platform are decided well in advance. By 1976, the rules of both parties ensured that the rank and file chose the vast majority of convention delegates, through either primaries or caucuses. In practice, the current primary system has maximized the role of money and momentum.

This year, conventions were almost completely removed from the selection of a nominee. For all practical purposes, John Kerry captured the nomination last January by securing 38 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. He then turned that victory into fundraising success and evidence of his electability in a primary calendar structured to ensure that the party would make a prompt choice of its nominee.

A variety of suggestions exist for restoring excitement to the convention. One idea was to have Kerry allow the delegates to this year's Democratic convention to choose the party's vice-presidential nominee. But because of the growing importance of the vice presidency, the presidential nominee now asserts sole power to choose his or her running mate, both for political reasons and for the good of the country.

The last open convention occurred in 1956, when Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, seeking to jumpstart his doomed challenge to President Eisenhower, unexpectedly allowed the convention to select his running mate. Three formidable figures vied for the prize -- Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, a two-time presidential candidate; his Volunteer State colleague Albert Gore, Sr., perhaps the last great Southern populist; and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, making his initial appearance in the national limelight. Kennedy came up just short of Kefauver but made contacts that served him well when he ran for the top spot in 1960. In fact, not receiving the vice-presidential nomination probably benefited Kennedy, since it spared him a slot on a losing ticket.

Stevenson's gambit would not be feasible today. Nominees then wanted running mates who would balance the ticket; Kennedy's 1960 selection of Lyndon Johnson, a moderate Southern Protestant, is the classic example. The last two presidents, however, have looked for vice-presidential candidates who would complement their campaign's main themes. In 1992, Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, offered the image of a vigorous, moderate Democratic leader, sustaining the Democrats' portrayal of George H.W. Bush as out of touch. In 2000, Dick Cheney, like George W. Bush, presented himself as a candidate who would talk straight to the American public, thereby bolstering GOP attacks on the Clinton-Gore administration for untrustworthiness. Since convention delegates are not privy to internal campaign strategy, if permitted they might choose a running mate who contradicted the themes planned for the campaign.

The 2004 campaign has featured some innovations in popular politics, usually involving the Internet -- Howard Dean's fundraising, moveon.org's ability to highlight issues ignored by the mainstream media and the Bush campaign's development of ads available only via e-mail. Yet the era of genuine grassroots participation in the national political process seems over, regardless of whether John Kerry announced his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, via e-mail or how events at this year's party conventions unfold.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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William R. Clay - 7/31/2004

This is post is so juicy as to simply demand further attention. Where to start is the question? Let us meander over to television first. I certainly concede that TV is no longer merely the “Big Three”, with its resulting lock on the public’s mind. Newton Minnow’s vast wasteland is now forever fractured into far smaller piles of excrement. That being said, there are really only a few big players in the news coverage business. The raw power to convey a message is still there. No, it is no longer as easy to “deliver” an audience as it was in the first 30 years of television (say 1945 to 1975), but TV cannot be ignored. If this were the case the careful stage-managing of the current conventions would cease to exist. While I consider myself a power user of the Internet, I am not as sure as Mr. Todd as to its overwhelming role in today’s society, particularly in the area of current news. Without solid numbers to back me, I will none-the-less ease out on the academic ledge and say that I think television still has an advantage, and by this I mean broadcast television.

In aisle five one finds the “business conservatives” of Mr. Todd’s description. I think I would use the term pragmatists, but business conservative is pretty damn good! Spot on the money here, Mr. Todd. This group is slightly right-of-center and as frightened of the neocons as they are of flaming leftist. Ditching the far right of the Republican Party would be sweet music to their ears. War (with a few exceptions) and government prying is not what this block of voters desires. I agree though that President Bush will likely not drop this baggage off at the Republican Convention. A pity.

Wining and losing… This race is Bush’s to win or lose and, I might add, Senator Kerry’s to lose. It is entirely possible for Kerry to step in the proverbial pile of, well, you know what, and lose to Bush. Bush, on the other hand is locked into tangible results. For better or for worse, his fate is cast in the actions he takes, reacts to, or are simply out of his direct control. It will be a great ride over the next few months.

Now, on to the really juicy ingredient of the post. I have often felt that when a politician goes beyond the town line, you simply cannot trust them. Give me someone that lives right there in your own hometown, where you can look them in the eye on a regular basis. Out of sight often means out of mind. Mr. Todd’s concept of mini-conventions has great personal appeal. The technicalities of actually linking an electronically based voting system are doable as is a more intimate media coverage. While this concept may be an anathema to the large city hotel business, it certainly would be a blessing to the overtime-cursed police departments of the same said cities. Excitement? You say nothing can beat an old-time full-blown rafter packed political convention? I actually think that Mr. Todd’s idea might just fly toward replicating this mood many times over in centers scattered across the country. This concept might just put some of the spontaneity back into our political system.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/29/2004

Television used to be the medium-- it isn't any more. The internet is now the major medium. Then too, you have to be careful to define what you mean by television. A television set plugged into a VCR plugged into cable TV or sattelite TV has very different properties than a television set hooked up to a rabbit-ear antenae. There is fast-forwarding, channel surfing, etc. With so many choices, it is increasingly difficult to buy audiences.

There are certain salient points about the internet, compared to other media. The internet's two-way nature is well-known, of course, as is the ease of research. However, another significant point is that the reader directly bears an extraordinarily high fraction of the cost, compared to the publisher (owning a computer, having an internet account, ink cartridges, etc.). The cost of running a website is so low as to make the whole issue of campaign finance nearly inoperative. Once a potential voter has consumed a penny's worth of download bandwidth, he has read the equivallent of a couple of books, and it is extremely improbable that he should not have made up his mind, one way or the other. A million dollars is really a lot of money in terms of intelligent usage.

Practically speaking, the real Democratic convention began about a year ago, on the blogosphere, with an unprecedentedly large number of participants. Howard Dean raised an extraordinarily large sum in small donations as an incidental byproduct, but this did not translate to many votes in the primary. A compromise with moderate Republicans had been brokered at the grass-roots levels. In the aftermath of the early primaries, the DaillyKos man raised another very large chunk of small donations for Kerry. I doubt that there are very many people with undefined political positions at this stage. There are, however, a certain number who are waiting on events in Iraq and elsewhere, something completely different.

Case in point: there is a body of "business conservatives," people who vote Republican in normal times because they don't like government inspectors telling them what they can and can't do, but who have very little time for the relegious right, and who have become frankly terrified of the neoconservatives. Representatives of this group are in effect making an offer to the president: "Ditch Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, & Co., place yourself under the guidance of Collin Powell and John McCain, and we will vote for you." I do not anticipate that this offer will be accepted, but I may be mistaken.

Thus, the outcome of the election can still be uncertain, even though there are not very many people around who are still open to persuasion by anything short of substantive action. There is nothing much that the Democratic convention, the DNC, or John Kerry can do to change the outcome. The election is George W. Bush's, to win or lose by his substantive actions-- and their outcomes.

There is such a thing as "operational totalitarianism," meaning, for example, that the FBI's organization is basically similar to that of the KGB. That said, what the television-era convention resembles, more than anything else, is the 1934 Nazi Nuremburg Rally, captured in "Triumph of the Will," the first convention staged for the movie camera. It is an occasion for the delegates to submerge their identities in a crowd. My conviction is that, insofar as possible, politics should be conducted in tens of thousands of town squares, and that the right use of technology is to enable such politics. The Electoral College is an admirable institution in its way. I would favor dispersing the conventions in a similar manner, preferably down to county level. This would mean that the conventions would be conducted with greater decorum, with fewer people seeking a wild night on the town where they were not known. Electronic voting works perfectly well as long as one does not attempt to combine it with a secret ballot. Each elector simply broadcasts his vote to all the world. The mechanics are subject to working out, but it would be desirable to create a system in which a lot of local assemblies debate issues among themselves, rather than passively listening to amplified speeches by national politicians.

William R. Clay - 7/28/2004

I will certainly agree wholeheartedly with John on this issue. However, I find it ironic that television, the tool that brought political conventions to virtual life, also became a factor in their decline. Much blame, if you will, has been placed on the deterioration of machine politics, and the revisions of internal party operations, for making political conventions a nearly extinct dinosaur, but TV must step to the plate for acceptance of its share of honor or guilt.

To put it bluntly, the media moderated the message. Money and image dictates that political parties simply cannot afford to take unscripted chances before a live mass audience. As the political power of television was tentatively explored in the 1950’s (think of the 1956 Eisenhower spots), to the landmark Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, and wrapping up with the disastrous street riots of the ’68 Democratic National Convention, TV simply became too important to allow un-modulated images to mar the candidate or the party.

Today we see a strictly scripted, tightly choreographed, and professionally polished production called a national convention. The difference is as prominent as that shown between the live television productions of the early years, and those refined recorded shows that followed. Conventions have become all that Professor Johnson has proclaimed, and yet, even with their fatal flaws evident, they are as important still as John Dresner described.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/27/2004

There are a couple of ways in which the convention is still meaningful. Legally, it marks the fundraising division between the primary and general campaign. It also is a useful social exercise, bringing the party together, showcasing prominent (and up-and-coming) members. In communications terms, it provides a chance for the media and general population to focus on each ticket and the party it represents and associates with.

Functionally, of course, the primary elections were moot months ago, and I agree with the general point that the conventions are not meaningful meetings in any sense of the word.

But there are rituals and patterns that make the coming together meaningful, even if it is less exciting than it used to be.