The conventional wisdom about national political conventions is that they have outlived their purpose. Once, they were the place where the parties actually picked their candidates for president and vice president. But for at least 30 years now, conventions have been the place where the nominees, long since selected, try to bind up their party’s internal wounds and reach out over the heads of the delegates to woo the less partisan voters who usually decide the election. They have become the largest, most expensive infomercials in human experience.
So why are we even still having them?
As the parties convene, there will be much chattering that conventions don’t matter anymore, that they are a waste of money (some of it taxpayer money) and should be abandoned. "Total anachronisms. Parties should scrap ’em," said Mark McKinnon, former media adviser to George W. Bush and a co-founder of No Labels, a group devoted to purging "hyper-partisanship" from politics, reports AP writer Michael Oreskes.
The Senate, in fact, voted, 95 to 4 a few weeks ago to cut off in the future the $18.3 million subsidy each party gets to stage (that is the word — "stage") the conventions. Homeland Security also gives out $50-milllion to assure security at each convention.
The parties are not likely to give up their moments in the sun, however — conventions are the time when voters really tune in. Even with the reduced airtime the TV networks now give them, conventions bring a spike in attention, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. Social media is likely to magnify that this year in the same way that it whetted TV audiences’ appetites for this summer’s other big event, the London Olympics.
The acceptance speeches of the two presidential nominees will be the largest campaign audience either receives until they meet together for the three debates.
Those speeches are no small thing.
American politics is hardly burdened by too much communication, although if you live in a battleground state saturated with 30-second commercials you might be forgiven for thinking that. The larger problem is too little substantive communication, particularly communication that forces a thought to last longer than the speed of soundbite.
The acceptance speeches are the only time in the entire fall campaign when each candidate speaks directly to the country for an extended time, unfiltered by news coverage or back and forth with an opponent.
Other countries arrange time specifically for that sort of thing. Not in America.
"It is the best chance for a candidate to ‘introduce himself’ to the country on his own terms," says Mickey Edwards, a Republican from Oklahoma. That is particularly interesting coming from Edwards, who in almost every other respect excoriates the present political system in his new book, The Parties Versus the People.
"I do, indeed, want to radically overhaul the system, but that’s about the voting process, money, partisanship in governing," Edwards says. "The convention is not at that level; it’s more of a ‘show’, more important than mere ‘entertainment.’ I see it as something worth watching, and even more so than most of the other stuff on television."
Conventions were originally thought of as a reform of a system in which congressmen picked the candidates. The first party conventions were before the election of 1832, and nominated Henry Clay to challenge President Andrew Jackson. Delegates arrived at both those party conventions knowing who would get the nomination. Just like this year. But that hasn’t stopped conventions from convening every four years since.