What's The Point Of Political Conventions?
It’s been decades since political parties actually selected a nominee at their national conventions. Duncan McFadyen takes a look at what modern conventions are used for.
Back in 1996, Nightline host Ted Koppel packed up and left the Republican National Convention. He called it more of an “infomercial than a news event.”
And that hasn’t changed for either convention in the last 16 years.
During coverage of the RNC August 29th, NPR’s Ron Elving said, “Everything is just a ratification of things that have been decided somewhere else. What these have
become, as we’ve said before, is essentially multi-night advertisements on prime-time television for the ticket and for the ideas of each party.”
Maybe so, but here’s the thing: People watch them.
The ratings company Nielsen reports that two-thirds of American households watched at least one of the 2008 conventions.
That doesn’t surprise former CNN political correspondent Charles Bierbauer. He agrees they are infomercials, but adds, “Well people watch infomercials don’t they; somebody buys all those products. This is a political product that is being promoted to a national and global audience. And the media are free to attend and report as they choose.”
Bierbauer covered 9 political conventions for CNN. Today, he’s dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. He says he still gets a charge from political conventions, “I’m kind of a process person and I like to see the process unfold and determine what the dynamics are and who holds sway and what the bargaining may be.”
OK, but the last time there wasn’t a presumptive presidential nominee heading into a convention — Democratic or Republican — was 1976. Neither President Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan had enough delegates.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any drama, like the 1984 DNC that nominated Walter Mondale. Bierbauer recalls, “the question that hovered over the Democratic convention was, ‘what does Jesse want? What is Reverend Jackson negotiating for behind the scenes to gain his support for the nominee?’”
That kind of drama is long gone. But conventions are opportunities for the parties to energize their base. And then there’s the money…
Although conventions are expensive, the money raised wouldn’t necessarily come in otherwise, Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, says, “In the context of the conventions, the Federal Election Commission has always thought of those as really funds that are intended to promote the city as opposed to funds that are intended to promote the party, so the kinds of companies you’ll see on those lists are the kinds of companies that are important locally that have the kinds of resourses that would be important in putting on a convention – no matter where it was.”
And the influx of powerful people, and their money, are an opportunity for candidates besides those at the top of the ticket. “It’s certainly a chance to get access to large donors and so candidates and other types of organizations try really hard to fund raise in the context of a convention,” Biersack says.
So, in the end, it may be an infomercial. We’ll see which party’s product sells better come November.