Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Conventions: A National Curiosity

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U.Va. Center for Politics August 31st, 2012

(TAMPA, FL) — Before the 1970s, the political primary process was usually little more than a charade; party leaders met after the primaries were over to do the real work of picking a nominee.

Or maybe not even the party leaders. After being rebuffed for the Republican presidential nomination one last time in 1952, Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio (son of a president, father of another senator and grandfather of a governor) supposedly said that, “Every Republican candidate for president since 1936 has been chosen by the Chase Bank.” It’s a sentiment to which Taft’s ideological descendants, some of whom reside in the Ron Paul wing of the GOP, probably would subscribe as they watched Mitt Romney, who made his wealth through Bain Capital, assume their party’s presidential mantle.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Republican Party officially nominated Romney, but not before each state got its moment in the sun to announce its votes for the former Massachusetts governor, usually along with some entertaining fact. The spokesman for Idaho charmingly called it the “43rd star on the American flag”; the speaker for American Samoa said that it was the only American soil in the Southern Hemisphere; and an Oregonian, oddly, referred to his state as “the New Jersey of the West,” to the bafflement of all. Hard to say that it isn’t all good fun, but it’s strictly ceremonial.

It’s not surprising that members of the press and others who analyze politics for a living yearn for a brokered convention. Not only would it be exciting, but it would also make the press more powerful, because they could use their insider connections and access to present the decision-making process to the outside world. That would puff up the press in ways that the New Hampshire primary never could. As it is now, a national convention is one of the most widely covered events every four years, and yet it’s also one over which journalists have little control. The parties have the power to present their message as they see fit, which might not be a bad thing.

That doesn’t mean that the press doesn’t try to find angles on the conventions, but they mostly amount to what Hyman Roth, speaking in The Godfather Part II, might call “small potatoes.”

In the lead-up to the conventions, there was a burst of stories about which politicians would and would not attend their party’s conventions. It’s hard to imagine that anyone back home pays attention to such trifles — and, even if anyone did, would such a mini-move by a politician change a person’s vote? If it did, that wouldn’t speak all that well of the intelligence of the voter.

Closer to the action, reporters dissect the stable of speakers. The speeches can generate some excitement — see Barack Obama in 2004 or Ann Romney this year — but they mainly serve as something akin to the National Football League’s annual scouting combine: Just as prospects there are put through a series of exercises (like the 40-yard dash) that don’t necessarily indicate whether a guy can play on a football field, so are convention speakers mainly judged by the press on how well they can give a set speech. Rhetorical ability might be an indicator of future campaign performance, but it’s not a reliable test of competence in governance.

Of course, there was also the Ron Paul factor: Would his supporters affect the convention? Turns out, the Romney forces prevented his name from being placed in nomination. Other than for a few awkward moments during the roll call — and some shouting and yelling inside and outside the chamber — the Paul insurgency faltered. The forces Paul unleashed may yet have some role to play in the future of the Republican Party, but as of now his supporters are very clearly on the outside looking in at power in the party. Sen. Rand Paul appears to want to make his own imprint within the GOP in a way his father never could. Should he run for president, Rand will do so as a Republican insurgent, not a libertarian one like Ron. Some Paul-ites are none too happy about the son, and we encountered a fair number of Paul supporters who plan to vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson or someone else on the 2012 ballot. The Republican “big tent” may not be big enough to hold many of the Paul backers.

By the way, the Ron Paul situation reminds us of another significant change in convention procedures. In the old days, it was considered a mandatory courtesy to most or all who competed in the primaries and garnered delegates that they could have their name placed in nomination, hear some flowery words of praise, and even receive the votes of those hard-won delegates before magnanimously releasing them to the actual nominee. No longer. The slightest hint of dissension is quashed in both parties lest the news media, especially unfriendly journalists, use the circumstances to beat the party about the head. The most a vanquished foe can expect today is to be given a formal speaking slot — to praise the actual nominee. And most former candidates do not even receive this small prize. Forgive us if we lament this clear example of the decline of vigorous democracy. It seems more appropriate for a Politburo than a political party.

Speaking of those journalists, there is a flood of them at the conventions: The RNC issued more than 15,000 credentials for media. That’s about three times the number of credentials issued for the Super Bowl, for what it’s worth. Nearly all of them were not even set up at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the formal convention was held and where the featured speeches were given; rather, they were located a few football fields length west of the Forum at the Tampa Convention Center. Many members of the press traveled from all corners of the country (and the globe) just to watch the speakers on television like everyone else. Some of the bigger media outlets — the big television networks, the cable news channels and leading publications such as the Associated Press, New York Times, and many more — had legions of reporters in giant pens all over the convention center. The networks and others, of course, also had suites at the Forum to provide their live shots of the action. The cost to house, feed and equip these armies is vast, and the bottom line cost for one of the bigger outlets undoubtedly numbers in seven- or eight-digit territory. America’s big media companies may be struggling financially, but an observer at a convention would never know it.

The conventions cost the parties a pretty penny, though some of the money comes courtesy of (unwilling) taxpayers. The RNC was estimated to cost $73 million, the New York Daily News reported; that includes $18.2 million kicked in by the federal government (that does not include another $50 million the federal government kicks in for security). The $3 political contribution box taxpayers can check on their income tax return funds this federal largesse. Increasingly few people offer their checkmark; in 2011, it was a mere 6.4%.

Might the parties permanently dial back their conventions back at some point? Republicans learned in 2008 that a three-day convention worked just fine, and by and large, they overcame the cancellation of the first day of their convention this year. Meanwhile, Democrats had already cut their convention down to three days next week. The era of the four-day convention could very well be over, which will essentially boil conventions down to three primetime speeches: the keynote, followed by the running mate and the candidate him or herself on the final night. Democrats are using a slightly different strategy this year, as Bill Clinton is highlighting the second night of their convention, rather than Joe Biden. Gee, we wonder why?

At some point in the future, the conventions may just turn into three-day weekend pep rallies, held earlier in the summer. Maybe they can even be done electronically, saving tons of cash for other political purposes. The major networks barely want to cover them, and most Americans no longer watch. People have voted with their clickers and mouses, though we fully acknowledge and endorse the party-building aspects of traditional conventions. And if the primaries fail to resolve the identity of the party nominee in any year, there must be a mechanism for determining him or her, whether by vote of a convention or another designated body (such as the national party committee).

We’re jumping way ahead of today’s reality. The presence of all the news media at the 2012 conventions shows that there’s still some demand for the coverage they are producing. The people may now pick the nominees, but the two party bases, and a scattering of independents and undecided voters, remain curiously interested in these old, outdated institutions that once denied them any influence. For better or worse, the spectacle endures…this year at least.