Overview of the New Report on Political Conventions

In the days before today’s carefully scripted conventions, anything could – and did – happen, from fist-fights to a verbal attack on a candidate’s wife:

* In 1924, Democrats nominated West Virginia politician John W. Davis on the 103rd ballot, during a 16-day convention that featured a fist-fight and delegates whacking each other’s heads with placards. Famed newspaper curmudgeon H.L. Mencken called the gathering “as fascinating as a revival or a hanging . . . vulgar . . . ugly . . . stupid . . . hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus.

* At the 1980 Democratic Convention, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter, resisted shaking Carter’s hand after the president’s acceptance speech.

* At the 1992 Republican gathering, the last convention not successfully scripted from start to finish, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan delivered what was described as “one of the most scathing convention speeches of the modern era, extraordinary for its attack on a nominee’s wife.” “There is a religious war going on for the soul of America,” Buchanan declared. Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary “are on the other side.”

Many analysts concluded that Buchanan’s speech contributed to incumbent President George H. W. Bush’s loss in the general election. Carter lost after the 1980 convention, as did Davis in 1924.

In fact, divisive conventions usually lead to losing general elections. As Ken Bickers, chair of the University of Colorado Political Science Department, put it, “The party that has trouble unifying itself has trouble winning elections in the fall.” Television’s capacity to carry convention chaos into voters’ living rooms heightened the impact. In response, leaders of both parties will move mountains to avoid convention controversy.

This year, Democratic Party leaders grew terrified as the marathon battle for their presidential nomination slashed and burned its way through the spring primaries and caucuses.

As early as March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was preaching the necessity of unifying behind a single candidate “a long time before the Democratic National Convention” in late August. As the race between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton continued into late May, Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean pressed uncommitted delegates to pick a candidate so a winner would emerge.

If the race were undecided when the primaries ended, Tennessee Gov. Philip Bredesen suggested, party leaders and activists – the ex-officio “superdelegates” – should meet in early June to pick the nominee. Tom De Luca, a Fordham University political science professor, even proposed moving the convention itself to June – a logistical impossibility – to avoid a summer of post-primary campaigning.

Clinton , of New York, finally conceded on June 7, after Obama, of Illinois, collected enough delegates to clinch the nomination in the final primaries on June 3. Many candidates with fewer votes than Clinton had carried campaigns into the convention, but party leaders successfully pressured her to drop out.

“The big obstacle was her wanting to keep her standing with fellow Democrats,” says Mark Rubinfeld, chair of the sociology program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. “Their message was very clear: We’ll let you go to the end of the primaries, but for the good for the party we don’t want you to take it any further.”

Democratic leaders rejoiced at Clinton’s acquiescence, particularly since Sen. John McCain of Arizona had wrapped up the Republican nomination in February and was busy wooing GOP voters who had supported other candidates. The end of both races, however, left both conventions with few real decisions to make.

As many as 50,000 people – including 15,000 connected with the news media – are expected to descend on Denver for the Democratic Convention Aug. 25-28 and on Minneapolis-St. Paul for the Republican confab Sept. 1-4. Yet the world already knows – barring the completely unexpected – that Obama and McCain will be the presidential nominees. They are expected to name their running mates before the conventions begin. Party leaders are working doggedly to avoid divisive fights over platform planks or party rules.

Telecommunications technology contributed greatly to the conventions’ demise as decision-making bodies.

When Democrats gathered for their first national convention in 1832, the give-and-take of political negotiations could occur efficiently only in face-to-face meetings. That remained true until direct-dial long-distance telephone service became widely available and affordable in the 1960s, according to political analyst Michael Barone.

Previously, politicians “could start communicating with each other only when they got off the train at the convention city,” Barone pointed out. That changed when politicians “could negotiate and convey information confidentially over the phone.” Now, he said, “the communication that once could take place only in the convention city during convention week is going on all the time, all around us.”

Until radio broadcast the first convention in 1924, the general public learned about the proceedings only by reading accounts in newspapers or magazines. Few Americans actually saw the proceedings until television began covering the conventions in 1948. By the 1960s, conflict at conventions was seen by voters across the country.

To avoid unwanted convention activities, Republicans actually wrote a script for each session of their 1972 gathering. They delivered copies to the television networks each night to facilitate planning of the next day’s coverage. Both parties have tried to do the same every year since.

The spread of primaries, particularly beginning in 1972, further reduced the importance of conventions. Candidates discovered they could jump-start their campaigns by doing well in the first contests of each presidential year – the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Other states, resenting those small states’ out-sized influence, pushed their contests ever-earlier in the year.

By the 1990s, candidates were clinching both parties’ nominations before the end of March. In 2008, 34 states voted by Feb. 5, and McCain clinched the GOP nomination when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s withdrew on Feb. 7.

With the nominations sewed up months beforehand, both parties turned their conventions into four-day-long television advertisements for their candidates. The networks rebelled against being used as unpaid advertising conduits and chafed at having little real news to cover.

By 1980, ABC, NBC and CBS had reduced their convention coverage to a few hours each night. In 1984, Jeff Gralnick, ABC’s executive producer for convention coverage, termed the meetings “dinosaurs.” Four years later, ABC News President Roone Arledge called the 1988 Republican Convention “as scripted as any prime-time program,” which left journalists “nothing to cover.”

In 2004, the three networks broadcast from each convention for just about three hours each week. Similar coverage is expected in 2008. Although PBS and cable news channels continue to cover the conventions “gavel to gavel,” fewer voters watch those outlets, so the conventions’ value as free advertising declined.

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