Question: With all the concern over in-person political party conventions due to the coronavirus pandemic, do we actually need to have the big confabs?
Answer: Given that both Republican and Democratic parties have essentially canceled the biggest in-person parts of their conventions, the answer is, “probably not.”
Party conventions are an historical part of our presidential candidate selection process that dates back to the 19th century, when our parties were establishing themselves. Originally, conventions were working meetings where decisions were actually made. Candidates seeking the nomination of a party would go to the convention, and attempt to persuade party officials and delegates from the various states to support their candidacy.
However, it was not very democratic. The average voter, even if a party member, was often excluded from this practice, as the selection of the delegates to the convention was often controlled by a “party boss” or decided by a group of leading party officials in each state. Many of the images of smoky backrooms comes from re-tellings of this often opaque convention process that had convention party bosses “brokering” deals to produce nominees.
This process gradually changed in the 20th century with progressive reforms that led to the selection of delegates to the convention by primaries, or elections, rather than more party-controlled caucuses.
However, this was a gradual process, and for most of the 20th century, the selection of delegates was through both systems. Ironically, entering a primary was initially seen as a weakness for a candidate, since it suggested they lacked the influence with party leaders to win the traditional way.
The biggest change was in 1968 after then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without competing in any primaries, causing anger and unrest. The subsequent McGovern-Frasier Commission reformed the process, and opened it to the voters so that delegates would be chosen more by the party base than by elite leadership. The trappings of the old system still survive in forms like party leaders being “superdelegates,” but winning today is more about mass appeal rather than inside politics.
The reforms changed the purpose of the conventions. Instead of being a place where the nominee is decided, it’s now more of a campaign event that seeks to boost the candidate into the general election. The roll-call vote is all about political theater, as the winner of the most delegates is known well before the gathering. The convention could still be pivotal if no candidate garners a majority of the delegates during the primaries. For example, in 1924, it took the Democrats 103 ballots and over two weeks to decide on a nominee. But multiple ballots are rare, and it last happened in 1952.
Conventions also ratify party platforms, but these documents are often drafted and agreed upon, you guessed it, before the convention. While there can be battles over the planks, this is mostly for insiders and is not binding for the candidates. The most excitement with the platform is when the pending nominee prevents party activists from inserting provisions they don’t want to later have to defend.
Modern conventions are primarily a scripted television show filled with speeches, sideshows and countless balloons. They are not meaningless. The official nominee still needs to be announced, and there is fundraising, networking, and value in hearing the candidates and their supporters speak. But, a large event is no longer a necessity, and especially difficult to justify over current public health concerns.
Kevin Wagner is a noted constitutional scholar, and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. The answers provided do not necessarily represent the views of the university.
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