Is Charlotte's DNC the last big convention?

Primaries and lengthy campaigns make the events less relevant, and they’re expensive, too

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 6, 2012 

— Organizers of this year’s Democratic convention like to brag about its firsts:

First to intentionally shrink by a day. First to open and close with public events. First to at least try to pinch the influence of big money.

But this convention may claim another distinction: It could be the last, at least as we know it.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘relic’ yet, but … you may be hosting the last of the big-time conventions,” says political analyst Bob Beckel.

Conventions that once picked presidents have become little more than infomercials, drained of drama and spontaneity along with their original purpose.

To critics, they’ve gone the way of smoke-filled rooms, replaced by all-important primaries and seemingly endless campaigns.

And they’re expensive. With security, the Democratic and Republican conventions each costs nearly $120 million. That’s almost a quarter-billion dollars – more than half from taxpayers – for what U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn calls “summertime parties.”

“Where in the Constitution can you find the authority for us to tax you and give the money to a political organization so they can have a party?” says the Oklahoma Republican. “They ought to be paying for their own security and their own party.”

In June, Coburn offered an amendment to a farm bill that would bar the use of tax funds for future conventions. There is, he said at the time, “no justification for spending public funds on booze, balloons and confetti when both parties are awash in campaign donations.”

The convention measure passed 95-4, though the overall bill is stalled in the House.

Conventions already are getting shorter.

Nobody complained when weather sliced a day off each of the last two Republican conventions. Charlotte’s is shorter by design.

“Our goal has been to make sure that we really sort of throw out the old playbook and plan a convention that’s totally different than any in history,” says CEO Steve Kerrigan. “This is really an opportunity to change the format from four days of endless speeches behind closed doors and really make it a convention about people.”

Critics say conventions could be even shorter – or disappear altogether.

“Conventions should be abolished,” political scientist Sandy Maisel of Colby College argued this year.

“No rational person,” he went on to say, “would design a presidential nominating system the way ours is designed today.”

New rules after tumult of 1968

Fred Harris is partly responsible for that system.

In 1968 he was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma and delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago, a convention marred by tumult on the floor and riots in the streets. Not only did it leave the party in turmoil but produced a nominee in Hubert Humphrey who hadn’t entered a single primary.

As national party chairman, Harris appointed what became known as the McGovern Commission. The 28-member body rewrote party rules to banish the influence of party bosses and democratize the presidential selection process.

The effect was to multiply the number and importance of primaries for both parties while steadily diminishing the role of conventions.

“Party conventions now are like the electoral college – they ratify a decision that’s already made,” says Harris, now 81 and a delegate from New Mexico.

Rallying the troops

But Harris says conventions still serve a purpose. They rally the troops and offer delegates a chance to give their blessing not only to their nominees but their platform.

Former newsman Ken Bode, who was the McGovern Commission’s research director, said conventions could still break a gridlock.

“There’s always the possibility that you’re going to have a deadlocked convention,” he says. “It’s a good idea to have it around just in case you need it.”

The last contested Democratic convention occurred in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter fended off a challenge from Ted Kennedy. The last disputed Republican gathering took place in 1976, when incumbent Gerald Ford turned back a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan.

Though this year’s prolonged GOP primary led to speculation about a brokered convention, that never happened. Instead both conventions have been tailored to put their nominee in the best light and give him a slick send-off. Not to mention a guaranteed TV audience.

“If you could find a way the party nominee could be seen by 38 million people then the conventions could be abolished, but nobody’s figured out a way to do that,” says Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “If people stop watching the acceptance speeches, I think the conventions would go away.”

In the old days of divided conventions delegates often had to choose a compromise candidate. A Lincoln, say, or a Garfield. Because today’s delegates are often chosen based on their loyalty to a candidate or an ideology, Maisel, the political scientist, believes they’d be less inclined to compromise.

His solution: abolish conventions and, in a deadlock, let elected officials and party leaders choose the nominee. By lending an element of peer review, he argues, this expanded group of super-delegates would rise above ideological factions and choose the best candidate to run and to govern.

Short of ending altogether, others say, conventions might continue to shrink.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see another four-day convention, and we may go down to two,” says Deb Kozikowski, a national Democratic committee member from Massachusetts. “We no longer travel to Philadelphia by horse and buggy from all over the country to elect our presidents.”

Communication has changed dramatically, not just since the first convention in 1831 but even since 2008. Technology lends itself to change.

This year Republicans touted their “Convention Without Walls,” using social media and live-streaming to reach voters and their smartphones across the country. Democrats are doing the same.

James McCann, a Purdue University political scientist, says conventions still serve a party-building function. But he acknowledges that in a 24/7 media world, where politics is always on, they lose some of their luster. “The distinctiveness of such an event,” he says, “is fading.”

Democratic consultant Chris Lehane calls conventions a “political appendix,” vestiges of another time.

The financial risks

Any changes would come with financial risks for the parties and their hosts.

Mike Dino, who headed the Denver host committee in 2008, applauds the decision to shorten this year’s event and would even support two-day conventions. But he acknowledges that Charlotte could have seen some of its hosting benefits downsized by becoming a “guinea pig” in the experiment to change longstanding convention traditions.

“It’s a transitional time for how conventions function, and in some ways Charlotte may pay the price for that,” he says. “Having a Saturday (press party) event when the convention doesn’t start until Tuesday and when (media company) budgets are tight – that probably has the chance to have some effect.”

City and convention officials say the shortened convention won’t affect the expected $150 million in economic benefit. But shorter conventions could.

At the same time pressure from Congress could squeeze cities and parties.

Under self-imposed rules that ban corporate money and large personal donations, Charlotte organizers reportedly have had a hard time raising the nearly $37 million required for the convention.

Each convention got nearly $18 million from the Federal Election Commission and $50 million for security costs. Coburn, the Oklahoma senator, says security aside, taxpayers shouldn’t get stuck with the tab for the parties’ parties.

“You can have as big a party as you want as long as you pay for it,” he says. “…The way you get rid of trillions of dollars in debt is a couple hundred million at a time.”

For all those reasons, conventions that began before the advent of telegraphs may not survive the digital era, at least in their current form.

“Maybe four years from now the parties will decide it is in their interest and the nation’s to set aside just one day and prime-time night for speeches by their nominees in a central location,” newsman Tom Brokaw wrote last week in The New York Times.

“They could have a satellite hook up to state-by-state or regional get-out-the-vote rallies across the country and maybe, just maybe, excite the nation about the coming campaign.”

Beckel, a Fox News analyst who served as Democrat Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign manager, expects much different venues in another decade.

“I think they’ll be done out of sound stages in whatever location, New York or Los Angeles,” he says. “But you’re not going to have a roomful of 4,000 or 5,000 people yelling and dropping balloons. Those days are rapidly coming to an end.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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