MINNEAPOLIS—As a handful of American cities vie for the honor of hosting the 2008 national political conventions, changes are under way that could further marginalize their value as tools to grab the country's attention and shape the final months of the presidential campaign.
The key change could be a long-threatened boycott by the big TV network anchors, who might stay home. If the evening newscasts aren't anchored from the conventions, that would make it easier for the networks to scale back prime-time coverage of them even more.
That would be one more step in the continual decline of what once were grand spectacles of raw political power and democracy at work.
The reason, of course, is that the conventions stopped being loud, messy, unpredictable—and interesting—a half-century ago. That's when they stopped being the place where rival candidates bargained and cajoled for delegate votes. Since the 1950s, candidates have won their votes in primaries and shown up at the increasingly scripted conventions to accept nominations already long-decided.
To be sure, there have been exceptions that grabbed the nation's attention. Riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A down-to-the-wire fight between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan for the nomination at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo. Discussion of a possible Reagan and Ford co-presidency at the 1980 convention in Detroit.
But mostly, the conventions are a snore, one that more and more people tune out.
That's put party officials in a downward spiral of their own making. They work ever harder to stage-manage the conventions to get the most pop they can out of limited TV coverage, but the inherent lack of drama leads to deeper cutbacks in TV network coverage every four years.
In 2004, the major networks aired only one hour of live coverage a night.
Now comes the next step.
The two parties will hold their 2008 conventions back to back for the first time in history. The Democrats will have theirs Aug. 25-28, and the Republicans the next week, Sept. 1-4. (The party that holds the White House always goes second.)
That means the Democratic candidate will have at best only three days to ride the bounce out of his or her convention before the attention of the already-limited political audience turns to the Republican convention.
Going earlier would've meant being crowded off at least one network by coverage of the Summer Olympics. Going before the Olympics, as the Democrats did in 2004, would force them to spread out—and thus dilute—the federal taxpayers' money made available for the post-convention fall campaign.
With the conventions back to back, at least some network officials have told party organizers they want both conventions in the same city. That would cut the cost of shipping all the TV equipment.
At a recent gathering of Democrats in Denver—which is hoping to land the Democratic convention—some party members buzzed that the TV pitch would lead to a Minnesota win, with one convention in St. Paul and the other in Minneapolis.
"It would make it easier for TV. But it's not possible," said Aaron McLear, a Republican National Committee spokesman. "The staging, the lighting, is all different for each party. They need time to set up."
Even if they managed to find different venues for the conventions themselves, the two gatherings would overlap at other sites for parties and headquarters, McLear said.
"The networks might use it as an excuse not to send the anchors," said one network official, who asked not to be identified because it could be controversial. "They would stay in New York, and we would just send correspondents to the conventions."
Of course, one option would ensure that the anchors go to the convention city—if it's New York. But anywhere else on the parties' list of finalists—Cleveland, Denver, Tampa, Minneapolis-St. Paul—might end up anchorless.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail email@example.com.)