Let’s stop hyping the conventions

George Mason University History News Network
August 28, 2008
    American voters are bracing themselves for the most overhyped event of the political calendar — the party conventions. These expensive events, paid for partly by public funds, are portrayed as critical points in the electoral process. But, despite an avalanche of coverage, the most important story is missed: While once critical to our political system, the quadrennial conventions are a useless, pointless bore. In fact, they are now the multimillion-dollar vestigial tail of American presidential politics.
    There is little acknowledgment of this mixture of boredom and fear in the news coverage of the convention. Instead, politicians, reporters and pundits spin tales of important moments from the conventions that will supposedly shape our nation’s future. However, as the paltry TV ratings show, viewers and voters are not fooled. Though the parties will do their best to make it look like they are presenting their take on the big issues, the conventions are actually run to make sure absolutely nothing of interest will happen.
    It didn’t used to be this way. Political conventions once were excitement personified, a place where “one lives a gorgeous year in an hour,” according to acerbic commentator H.L. Mencken. The dreams of presidential hopefuls rose and fell in a moment’s notice. But those days are long gone.
    The last time a convention even went past the first ballot was in 1952. Instead, the convention is now used for political theater. While there is a grand tradition of memorable moments in American history, from William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech in 1896 to Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 call for the Democrats to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” and while the convention can help introduce the nation to up and comers, like Barack Obama in 2004, that is not what organizers are focused on. Rather they are looking to avoid the one overriding convention moment that sticks in people’s minds today: the Chicago riot in 1968. Therefore, conventions are now run with the prayer that nothing will go wrong on national television, a focus that removes all points of interest from the proceedings. Witness the wrangling of whether to allow Hillary Clinton’s name to be put into the nomination process. The Obama campaign, which was resistant to the move, appeared to be completely afraid of letting any negative spin be placed on his nomination.
    The major networks, or at least the masters of scheduling, have noticed the convention’s lack of importance. There used to be gavel-to-gavel coverage of the events; now, except for the cable news networks, they have at best a few hours each night for viewers to search their cable listing for something interesting to watch. Even the ostensible political benefit cited by pollsters, the “convention bounce,” is just a momentary uptick in the polls that dissipates within days.
    At this point, with the triumph of the primary system, there remain only two reasons, outside of having the candidate receive a “prom king” coronation, to have a convention. One is if no candidate gains a majority. The other is if the presumptive nominee must be replaced due to death, disability or scandal. Neither of these is a particularly compelling reason for a convention.
    Thanks to a tight Democratic race, we got to see just how much the political parties feared the first possibility -- that the nominee will be selected at the convention. Political leaders practically demanded that the Democratic Superdelegates rally around a candidate even before the end of the primaries, partly to ensure that the convention would not be used to select a nominee. The hurt feelings from the losing candidate’s supporters, tied in with the possibility of claims of bribery, vote buying and the all-encompassing “corrupt bargain,” a serious problem in the heyday of the convention era, would today fatally weaken the candidate in the public’s eyes.
    As for the replacement issue, the convention is a simple, arbitrary date used for selecting the candidate. There is as much chance of a candidate’s removal before a convention as afterward. In fact, there was one candidate who had to be replaced after a convention: George McGovern’s original vice presidential selection, Thomas Eagleton. In that instance, the Democratic National Committee held an emergency meeting and ratified the new running mate, Sargent Shriver. Presumably the same mechanism, while not ideal, would be used for a presidential replacement.
    There’s no inherent problem in conventions being boring, self-congratulatory affairs. But let’s not make them out to be something they’re not. They’re not a kickoff for a campaign, nor are they a method for choosing a candidate. They’re just a big waste of money, some of it provided by the public. It’s time we recognized that they have as much use in our current political system as picking lots. Hopefully, one day this vestigial tail will simply drop off.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.