They're Loud, They're Proud, and They're Here to Stay: Why Political Conventions Matter by Treasurer Ryan Trumbauer
Note: The following views expressed have not been officially endorsed by the College Democrats at New York University. They represent only the thoughts and concerns of the author. All voices remain a vital part of our democracy.
Party Conventions have been part of our history officially since 1831 when the Anti-Masons met in Philadelphia to choose their party's candidate for the upcoming election. Other than historical precedence, which may be a reasonable argument for the Supreme Court, why do conventions matter and why do we still have them? Here are five reasons that I believe explain the importance of political conventions. Boiled down to bullet points they are: location, timing, speeches, platform, and television. Tying them all together is the constant theme, whether morally or ethically correct, that parties want to see their candidates win elections.
1. Location, Location, Location
Parties are smart. Their ultimate objective is to win elections so they can seek the all-elusive "mandate" from the people to craft and implement policy. Let's take a quick tour down memory lane to see why each city was chosen to host a party convention.
- 2008: Democrats chose Denver because Colorado was displaying signs of turning definitively blue. Republicans chose St. Paul, Minnesota because of the large local media coverage in the swing states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
- 2012: Democrats chose Charlotte, North Carolina in order to prove that Obama could win the swing state of North Carolina for a second time. Republicans chose Tampa, Florida remembering the 2000 election results in Florida that put the election in the hands of the Supreme Court.
- 2016: Democrats chose Philadelphia not only to be in a city where they could "make history again," but to ensure the new swing state remains blue this November. Republicans know the old adage, "as goes Ohio, so goes the nation." It should, therefore, come as no surprise that they chose Cleveland.
Will we see a convention in New York City any time soon? Probably not. New York is just not a competitive state for either party at the presidential level.
2. I'll go first. You will follow.
Timing matters. Parties do not schedule their conventions near holidays or events such as the Olympics, Labor Day, or Independence Day. Parties want to keep their ideals and policy proposals fresh in the minds of voters. Choosing dates that do not conflict with major events and lie as close to the general election date maximizes the number of people that a party can hope to reach during the four-day spectacles.
the party outside the White House has historically held the first convention. This year, Republicans held their convention before Democrats. It seems that the post-Convention bounce for the Republicans was quickly mitigated by the DNC this year. Hillary Clinton has a comfortable lead over Donald trump - 46% to 39%. Democrats received a four-point bounce. Trump received only a two-point bounce.
Four-day conventions are also a defining time for intraparty unity. Arguably, intraparty unity was more difficult for Republicans this year, but Democrats had an equally hard time due to the strong support and voice of the Bernie or Bust crowd inside the Hall. Three-day conventions have been held, but both parties are under great pressure not to bore their viewers. Bored viewers quickly become apathetic viewers and apathetic viewers quickly become disengaged voters.
3. What flavor medicine do we need?
The most important part of the conventions is the speeches. They define who the party was, who the party is, and who the party will be. The most memorable speeches outline the social and economic woes of the nation regardless of the backlash that might arise. To paraphrase Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, the medicine may be harsh, but the patient requires it to survive. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one in the first place.
Both parties use speeches to launch rising stars and strengthen longtime incumbents. In 1984, Mario Cuomo's "city on a hill" speech solidified his presence within the Democratic Party. Highlights of his speech sneaked into this year's DNC. The exact words of Barack Obama's keynote address may be forgotten by most, but the impact of his 2004 speech will not be forgotten as we say goodbye to his administration this coming January. Which will be the most memorable speeches from this year's conventions? Cruz's reluctant speech that failed to fully support Donald Trump in hopes of setting up a Cruz 2020 campaign? Will Cory Booker's "We will rise" speech set the stage for a Booker 2020 or 2024 landslide victory? Only time will tell.
4. Who are we?
Conventions are formal events with a dose of television magic. They are governed by official rules. One of the hallmark events every year is the adoption of the platform which outlines the party's stances on almost every issue that the nation is currently facing.
This year the Democrats adopted what some call the most progressive platform ever. Republicans adopted what others call the most regressive platform ever. Even though few people actually read the party platforms in their entirety, platforms allow the party to showcase what type of policy agenda their government will follow granted victories in the fall. Without a convention to officially adopt the platform, the adoption of a unified voice becomes infinitely more difficult. A divided party does not win elections.
5. Shoot me from my better side!
All the world's a stage. Political conventions are perhaps the best example of that. Everything about a convention is purposely designed with TV in mind. From personal experience, entire sections of the Wells Fargo Center simply did not have viewing access of the stage nor the jumbo-trons on the sides.
If all goes well, parties and presidential candidates can expect the media to spin the convention into a symbol of the party's strength and unity. Ask Jimmy Carter for the opposite effect. His failed balloon launch at the close of the convention in 1980 sent media commentators into a frenzy. It soon represented his delayed reelection campaign's ultimate demise.
Post-convention media commentary can serve as a boost or stumble to the two major party candidates' campaigns depending on which receives the post-convention bounce and which suffers from the post-convention flop.
Conventions do matter. They serve as rallying points for parties to influence voters in key swing states. They provide an opportunity to control the media and its coverage, at least for a brief moment, in hopes of setting off a victorious campaign for the White House. They have launched careers and brought lesser-known issues into the limelight of public discourse. They showcase the rules of each party and the platform which they stand by. If reform to the political system is to come, it may come through changes to either of these. The Unity Commission and party elites affect the former, but the people influence the latter. Exceptions, of course, do exist. Conventions ultimately symbolize the best qualities of one party to the detriment of the other.
Long gone are the days of the early American political experiment where no political parties thrived and no nominating conventions were systematically held. Since the development of the rift between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists during the final years of the Washington administration, party leaders chose which candidate best represented the ambitions of the party from which they were chosen through back-room dealings in smoke-filled Congressional caucuses.
Over time, progress was made and the nominating process became more open and more democratic, slowly pulling power from the hands of the political elite. Milestones occurred along the way. The first party convention was held in 1831 by the Anti-Masons. In 1904, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a law that required the direct election of delegates to the convention. Before, state party leaders and legislatures chose only those who were most loyal to the wishes of the elite. By 1916, more than half of all states held primaries. After the reforms of the pivotal Democratic National Convention in 1968, primaries became an essential road for a candidate seeking their party's nomination. This year another major milestone was reached with establishment of the Unity Commission by the Democratic Party. Among other things, it promises to reduce the number of superdelegates by two-thirds. History has shown the value of political conventions. They serve as mile-markers on the long road to a more perfect union. Over time, the democratic process has been opened to more and more people. More work has to be done to bring more people of all backgrounds into our democratic process. Political conventions, with all their speeches, platforms, and rules, will surely serve as guideposts for the future at the same time that they remain testimonies to the past.
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