With fewer Americans interested in party conventions and television executives providing less prime time coverage, the calls to “just scrap ’em” are mounting. This summer, CBS announced it preferred broadcasting a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” to convention speeches, while Chris Wallace of Fox News toasted the good old days when “real business got done.”
Primary voters, not convention delegates, select the presidential nominees. The nominees announce their running mates before the conventions begin. Nearly everyone seems to agree: these party parleys risk irrelevance.
But the conventional wisdom about conventions is wrong. Conventions still count. They help define the candidates, frame the debate, command attention and inject some communal moments into an increasingly atomized political process.
Maintaining traditional rituals is an important, unappreciated element of the campaign as a whole, a key part of its legitimizing function. The way we mobilize citizens, build candidate credibility and reaffirm party identity in two parallel rituals — despite all the partisan enmity — helps explain America’s quicksilver shift from vicious campaigns to peaceful, often rapturous, inaugurations. These familiar political ceremonies broadcast a reassuring continuity and stability even as candidates promise change, and partisans warn of disaster if they lose.
Since the 1830s, these matching, deliciously democratic rites have shaped campaigns, enhancing the dialogue between candidates and voters. Until Andrew Jackson’s democratizing revolution, “King Caucus” reigned, as Congressional leaders picked party nominees secretly. The conventions reflected nineteenth-century Americans’ emergence as partisans and not just voters. Popular party politics became the first great American national pastime. Then as now, convention delegates were both mediators and validators, conveying messages to candidates from their constituents, while bathing the candidates in populist love with hoopla and huzzahs.
True, conventions were once kingmakers, selecting the party’s nominee, often to the people’s surprise — and occasionally to party elites’ chagrin. Originally, delegates chosen by local party leaders convened in elaborately festooned halls, like the “Wigwam” in Chicago, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party in 1860. Back then, nominations and even the basic character of the party were up for grabs, as local political bosses squabbled over the platform while choosing the party’s “standard bearers” – the campaign’s military metaphors announced the party’s commitment to mobilizing manpower while maintaining discipline.
More power-hungry than idea driven, the bosses were angling for “spoils” and protecting turf, not just advancing policy positions. And the defining convention cliché — when delegates from the “great state” of LouWHEEziana or CaliFOURRRnia or wherever else praised their home bases effusively — affirmed regional sensibilities while uniting an increasingly centralized polity.
Library of CongressTicket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.
Seeking a “balanced ticket” to reflect both parties’ traditional self-image as broad, umbrella coalitions, conventions often produced awkward shotgun marriages. The Republicans in 1904 paired the staid William McKinley with the bombastic Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats in 1928 mismatched the Northern Catholic city slicker Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York with a “favorite son” candidate from Lonoke, Ark., Senator Joseph T. Robinson.
Divided and disputatious, conventions frequently deadlocked. In 1928, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. Sometimes, the stalemates reflected the party’s fragmented politics, producing “dark horses” — unexpected, inoffensive compromise choices — such as the Democrat James Knox Polk in 1844 and the Republican James A. Garfield in 1880. Sometimes, great ideological divisions were at play. In 1852, the Whigs, splintering over slavery, nominated the antislavery General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot, even as the platform appeased Southerners by endorsing states rights. Antislavery Whigs supported their nominee while “spitting upon the platform” in Horace Greeley’s memorable phrase. Twelve years later, during the Civil War, when the nominee George McClellan reversed the pacifist Democratic convention’s priorities by saying “the Union is the one condition of peace,” vice presidential nominee George H. Pendleton was so furious that McClellan would not end the war unconditionally, he boycotted his running mate’s campaign events.
Originally, nominees rarely attended the conventions, and never addressed the delegates once chosen. Believing a candidate’s reluctance and passivity reflected his virtue and suitability, the party offered the nomination by mail, which the nominee accepted with a formal reply. In 1848, Zachary Taylor’s acceptance was delayed for weeks because the notification committee’s invitation, sent postage due, languished in the Dead Letter office. The thrifty Taylor only accepted letters with prepaid postage.
By 1852, Scott used a new invention — the telegraph — to accept immediately, becoming the first nominee to address a convention directly, albeit remotely. When the rival Democrats chose Franklin Pierce after 49 ballots, the notification committee’s visit to him created a tradition of sending a party delegation to make the offer in person.
Pierce kept quiet that day. The post-convention notification ceremony later grew into a spectacle, as large delegations representing the diverse party interests visited the nominee, who, increasingly, endorsed the party and the platform with a full speech. By 1892, the Democratic financier and strategist William C. Whitney rented out Madison Square Garden so that the ex-president Grover Cleveland, seeking a comeback, could accept in front of 20,000 people. Democrats rejoiced that this ceremony “indicated that the candidates were in touch with the people.” Republicans mocked Cleveland as “Jumbo” the circus elephant playing Coney Island.
Even before they could be transmitted live, dramatic convention moments united Americans. After William Jennings Bryan’s electric “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, the once-obscure 36-year-old Nebraska Congressman became a national celebrity. From then on, his wife recalled, they lost their privacy: “The public had invaded our lives.”
In the twentieth century, the proliferation of primaries increasingly shifted the focus from the convention delegates to the people. Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to fly to Chicago and accept the nomination in person in 1932 was a twofer: it illustrated his vigor despite his polio and it signaled his readiness to offer a daring “New Deal.” Functioning more as coronation ceremonies than anointments, conventions now climaxed with acceptance speeches. Especially with the televising of the conventions starting in 1948, the Republican and Democratic gatherings became more about what the candidate stood for than who the nominee would be.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to recapture the presidency, championed direct primaries to bypass the party bosses who opposed him. The major issue, Roosevelt said, is “the right of the people to rule.” While these primaries were “beauty contests” sporadically reflecting voter appeal, candidates began arriving at conventions with established national reputations and independent power bases.
These blows to the conventions — and party bosses — boosted democracy. The spread of Republican and Democratic primaries, especially after the party reforms of the 1960s, popularized the nomination process. The drama of conventions now stemmed from what politicians said and did rather than which presidential aspirant lost or won. The Democrats’ divisive, disruptive conventions in 1968 and 1972 helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency, twice. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could not recover from the generational conflict that erupted in riots between mostly Democratic working class Chicago cops and mostly Democratic radical student protestors. The botched convention helped him lose the presidency by a slim margin.
Four years later, the convention defined George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” As one McGovern supporter put it later, “we should have had a coat-and-tie rule,” as many of the 50 million viewers at home saw too many long-haired hippies in tie-died T-shirts on the convention floor. McGovern became the first candidate since polling began to drop by two points rather than enjoy a “convention bump.”
In 1992, Pat Buchanan’s alienating, shrill call for “religious” and “cultural” war to “take back our country” taught Republicans the political dangers of convention extremism. By contrast, that year, Bill Clinton tapped into the convention’s contemporary power as a forum for communicating with the masses, strolling toward Madison Square Garden with his wife and daughter in tow, as part of an image makeover that helped him find his way.
Like the Olympics opening ceremony they always follow, these televised party carnivals forge party solidarity and launch the campaign, but they can still make or break candidacies. We could do without them because like the Olympics they are often overblown and self-important, but we would miss them (and we’d miss complaining about them too).
The conventions are part of the real action. Try explaining George Bush’s turnaround victory in 1988 without his convention call for a “kinder, gentler nation,” or George W. Bush’s surprisingly narrow 2004 victory without his joke that his “swagger” was merely considered walking in Texas, or Barack Obama’s entire career without his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech proclaiming that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.”
Maintaining a democratic dialogue with 300 million citizens is hard. Using this traditional medium — resounding with history and the echoes of earlier speeches, incorporating the battles resolved and the triumphs achieved — roots the often stressful election in America’s proud and ongoing democratic heritage. The mirror image convention rituals of the seemingly hostile parties eloquently broadcast a message of commonality even amid the many policy differences.
Ultimately, these dueling conventions remind us that presidential campaigning is not just about choosing a winner, or debating the national future. It is also, like every good national ritual, about binding a community together through symbols and stories and reaffirming our joint past, common ties and shared fate.
Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition. His most recent book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published this fall.