The upcoming political conventions for the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming increasingly predictable. The parties’ presidential candidate is chosen well ahead of time, and running mates and party platforms are usually in place before the first red-white-and-blue sign is hoisted. The original purpose of the political convention — to choose the best candidate — has been changed to reflect more modern concerns; how to get the best publicity for each party’s candidate. Dennis Plane, assistant professor of politics, explains the evolution (or devolution) of the modern convention.
Q: When did political conventions morph from king-making events to the present day model, where a front runner emerges from the primary system to be anointed as the presidential candidate?
A: After the 1968 Democratic convention, the Democratic Party instituted reforms designed to encourage citizen participation in selecting candidates and many states complied with that by holding primaries, which allowed voters to say who they wanted in office, as opposed to party bosses. This is also a safer position for both parties. Political parties are petrified of the unknown.
Q: The Clinton-Obama primary race certainly tested the current system. Was that good or bad for the Democrats?
A: There has not been a race as close as the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race since 1968. It will be good for the party because the race energized Democratic voters. The large increase in voter registration and the record low approval ratings for the current President is a recipe for a huge voter turnout.
Q: What is the role of conventions today?
A: Most democracies allow politicians to address the electorate through the media free of charge. The United States doesn’t do that, but they do allow the conventions to be covered in prime time, which gives both parties a chance to express their views and appeal to voters.
Q: What are some of the pitfalls of a convention?
A: The big worry for both parties is that someone at the convention will tick off the voters. You can really stick your foot in your mouth and give voters a chance not to vote for you. That’s why political conventions are so scripted.
Q: Are conventions still relevant?
A: Anytime you have people discussing or reacting to an election or a convention, that’s a good thing for democracy.
—John Wall, director of media relations