Once upon a time conventions meant something

How a series of divisive national conventions turned our modern-day political gatherings into dog-and-pony shows.
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President Barack Obama visits with a crowd in Nevada

How a series of divisive national conventions turned our modern-day political gatherings into dog-and-pony shows.

The storm-caused cancellation of last Monday's Republican National Convention events in Tampa was barely noticed. As it turned out, the GOP had more than enough time Tuesday through Thursday to showcase its candidates and message. Barring another Act of God, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte will have a full four-day run. But there too, three would have been enough — or, for that matter, one or two so far as most ordinary voters are concerned.

The quadrennial national party conventions were once decisive in choosing presidential and vice-presidential candidates; venues for spirited debates about platform issues ranging from war and peace to civil rights. But now the nominees are determined by the numerous state presidential-primary elections and divisive issues are fought out and papered over before the national conventions take place.

The Democratic and Republican parties themselves have also waned in influence. Avid interest groups and so-called independent committees have become more important in providing votes and money to candidates than traditional party organizations. The national parties' main functions, in fact, have become the setting of ground rules for state primaries, caucuses, and conventions and the staging of the every-four-year national conventions.

Quickly now, what are the names of the Democratic and Republican national chairs?  You don't know, do you? Few do.

Data indicate that the two parties' conventions are viewed mainly by their partisans. They serve mainly as reinforcers and energizers of the faithful; not as mind-changers for independent or on-the-fence voters. Their relationship to viewers is similar to that of Fox News to conservatives and MSNBC to liberals. They tell them what they want to hear and cement already-held opinions.

This week's GOP convention did provide a central service to its national ticket as the venue in which Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, Cain, Bachmann, Huntsman, Pawlenty, and Paul supporters of the nominating season could find common ground and rally behind the Romney-Ryan ticket. Remember that, only a few weeks ago, media pundits were predicting that many could never be reconciled to supporting "Massachusetts moderate" Romney, just as they predicted four years ago that many supporters of Hillary Clinton would not come on board with Barack Obama. Except in unusual circumstances, fissures within the party families are fixed at the conventions.

Public exposure is given to the losing candidates and their principal ideas. Focus is shifted from intra-party conflict to coming general-election combat with the other party's national ticket. Republicans did a good job of that this week and I expect Democrats to do the same in Charlotte.

Back in radio days, and until about 20 years ago, the conventions could attract mass audiences absorbed by their dramas. There were fewer primaries and often several candidates would come to national party conventions with a chance for the presidential nomination. Multi-ballot roll call votes, state by state, could go on for hours — not only concerning the nominees but key platform, rules, and credentials issues.

Party conventions also signaled changings of the guard within the parties: For instance, the 1948 Democratic convention featured a historic shift in the party's civil-rights stance and a walkout by previously reliable Southern "Yellow Dog" Democrats (who were said to support any Democratic candidate, even a yellow dog). A Dixiecrat ticket was formed, headed by South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, and, on the left, anti-Cold War supporters of former Vice President Henry Wallace split off into a short-lived Progressive Party.  Incumbent President Harry Truman won surprising reelection anyway.

The 1952 Republican convention was a contest between Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative favorite of regulars, and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a war-hero general whose party affiliation before that time had been unknown. Democrats had also tried to recruit him as a national candidate. In 1964, that party took a populist turn when it chose Sen. Barry Goldwater over New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.  Goldwater lost in a landslide, making possible historic 1965 Great Society legislation. But seeds were planted for the eventual nomination and party takeover in 1980 of Ronald Reagan, whose adherents still comprise a working majority within the GOP.  His name is still summoned within the party as Franklin Roosevelt's is among Democrats.

The 1960 Democratic convention marked a turning point. Adlai Stevenson had been the party's 1952 and 1956 nominee, losing both times decisively to Eisenhower. He was the favorite of the party's liberal wing and such leaders as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey. But a tough-minded junior Massachusetts Senator, John Kennedy — running to the right not only of Humphrey, his principal primary opponent, but of his eventual general-election opponent, Richard Nixon — won the nomination and general election with a combination of charm and muscle. Stevenson, unwittingly, had provided him with a jumping-off-point at the 1956 convention. Trying to build TV viewership and interest, he threw open the vice-presidential nomination to the convention floor. Though Estes Kefauver won the contest, JFK ran a surprisingly close second and became a national figure overnight.

The 1968 and 1972 Democratic conventions both left internal scars, which were never fully healed before the November general election. As Hubert Humphrey's assistant in 1968, and George McGovern's platform and policy director in 1972, I was personally involved in both.

The 1968 convention was divided over the Vietnam War and the 1972 convention over social-issue planks which newly emergent constituencies pressed hard. Democrats lost general-election contests to Nixon because, in both cases, traditional middle-American Democratic voters (since characterized as Reagan Democrats) became alienated from their party. They've never fully returned and have since voted increasingly Republican or switched back and forth as independents.

The 1964 Republican and 1968 and 1972 Democratic conventions were sufficiently turbulent — and thus damaging to their nominees — that the two major parties began shifting to briefer, made-for-TV showcases that minimized the opportunities for divisiveness.

At the same time, the shift to primaries from caucuses and conventions made it more likely that the parties' presidential nominees would be determined well in advance of the conventions — reducing the possibility for divisiveness over that central question.Thus the evolution to what we have now.

Although Republicans had intra-party tension this year — with Tea Partiers, Paulists, and Santorum social-issue believers making assertive claims on power — they wound up nominating the most moderate of the party's contenders and, at their convention, creating some unity behind him.

President Barack Obama, his party's incumbent president, will face no important factional opposition at the Democratic convention. The so-called Blue Dog moderate congressional Democrats, his principal opposition, were decimated in the 2010 congressional elections.

We enter the general-election season with entirely predictable postures by the two party tickets. Since elections involving an incumbent president are, most of all, referenda about the incumbency, Republicans will point to the country's economic distress, declare the incumbency failed, and say it is "Time for a Change."

The Obama campaign, for its part, will continue shifting the subject, focusing on the energizing of minority, women, public-employee,senior-citizen and other voters who presently constitute the Democratic base. It will warn that we must stay the course, lest Republicans undertake wrenching changes which might hurt these constituencies.

The fundamentals favor Romney, but Republicans are always less skillful politically than Democrats — generally viewing politics as a disagreeable if necessary task whereas Democrats love the game for itself. There are, additionally, a whole host of domestic and international financial and economic variables which could come into play over the next two months.

I'm looking forward, in particular, to the Obama-Romney and Biden-Ryan nationally televised debates. Not only will Democratic and Republican partisans be watching those debates but independent, moderate voters not presently watching the two party conventions will be tuned in and watching closely. They are the voters who will decide things in November.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.