With the Republican and Democratic national conventions about to take place, it might be good to have a Convention 101 lesson.
Don’t worry — there won’t be an exam (well, not until Nov. 6 — but there will be more study guides along the way).
First, we think of conventions as being unruly and hotly contested meetings, but unfortunately, modern conventions haven’t lived up to this historical image.
It wasn’t until 1831 that the first political convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party, with the Democrats holding the first major party convention the following year.
In 1860, with the nation on the verge of civil war, the Democrats held their convention for 10 days in Charleston, SC, and voted 57 times trying to pick their nominee — all without coming to a resolution on who their party’s standard bearer should be. Southern “fire-eaters” walked out of the convention and nominated their own Southern Democrat candidate.
The remaining party faithful limped out and reconvened six weeks later to finally nominate a Democratic ticket that only ran in the North.
In 1880, the GOP took 36 ballots, or votes, before finally nominating their candidate, James Garfield. But the ballot record goes to the Democrats in 1924, who took 103 votes before they could settle on their presidential candidate during a 16-day convention.
The most notorious modern convention was the Chicago 1968 Democratic convention, where Mayor Richard Daley’s machine and police battled anti-Vietnam war protesters outside and peace delegates inside the convention hall.
But following a set of reforms by the Democrats, both parties have seen more composed conventions. In fact, any modern convention that “makes news” is often seen as a failed convention.
Second, it’s important to know that in the modern age of political parties, one can look at three components of a political party: the party in government (its elected officials), the party in the electorate (its voters), and the party as an organization (its activists and party leaders).
Beside the general election, political conventions are usually the only time that all three components come together, and that’s only once every four years.
When the party gathers for its convention, three key activities occur: the formal nomination and acceptance of the party’s presidential ticket; the formulation and adoption of the party platform (the statement of the party’s principles and values); and the adoption of rules and procedures for the next presidential nomination cycle.
Leading up to, and during the convention, there are three key groups that are central to many activities that many average viewers won’t see: The credential committee, the platform committee, and the rules committee.
These committees help guide the convention activities, most often under the direction of the party’s nominee.
For example, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu — a strong Romney supporter — is chair of the GOP Rules Committee, where he will wield an influential role in future GOP primaries by ensuring his home state retains the “first primary in the nation” status.
The credential committee determines who will be rightful delegates to the exclusive party meeting, and this has been a source of controversy, even as recent as in 2008.
When Florida and Michigan decided to violate the Democratic Party’s rules and held their primaries earlier than allowed, both states suffered a cut in their delegates to the convention —but realizing the electoral importance of both states, the DNC’s Rules Committee eventually gave the renegade states seats at the convention.
The most notable delegate seating controversy was in the civil rights era of the 1960s with the Mississippi delegations to the DNC. There was one delegation representing the regular, white-dominated Democratic Party, and there was Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a coalition of black and white delegates.
For both parties, the center of attention is usually focused on the platform committee’s work, in which the vision and goals of what the party stands for are hammered out. In an “ideal political world,” the platform—and the planks that make up the overall platform—can be the results of hard-fought debates among the various constituencies in the party.
In 1948, during a sweltering heat-wave at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, southern conservative Democrats walked out after a civil rights plank was adopted. South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat Party against the national party’s Harry Truman.
In 1992, when the first President Bush was seeking re-election, social conservatives gained the upperhand at the party’s Houston Convention, where Pat Buchanan declared the modern “culture war” and gave the impression that Republicans had gone too far to the conservative wing of their party.
This year shouldn’t be as dramatic as 1948 or 1992, but there are some controversies that will make for media fodder. In this year’s Democratic Party platform, pro-life Democrats continue their struggle to be recognized, while it appears that a marriage equality plank will be easily adopted. For the GOP, Log Cabin Republicans have sought to include a plank on gay adoptions.
But for the most part, both of the upcoming party conventions will be very staged and settled upon — something that both Obama and Romney desperately want going into a tight general campaign.