The convention season is upon us! Starting with the Republican convention next week, and the Democrats’ the week after that, Americans will watch with baited breath as the parties decide whom to nominate for president.
Actually, those decisions were made many months ago. The real mystery is why anyone will watch the conventions — and why we need them at all.
The standard answer is that the conventions allow the parties — and their nominees — to define themselves on the national stage. In addition, conventions supposedly produce a “bounce” of popularity that catapults the better-performing candidate into the White House.
But in this era of non-stop news saturation, haven’t the candidates already had ample opportunity define themselves? It’s hard to see why they deserve four extra days of round-the-clock TV coverage, or why taxpayers should be shelling out $136 million to fund two big marathons of cocktail mixers, buffet lines, and canned speeches.
And the bounce-to-the presidency idea is mostly a myth. John McCain got a bigger post-convention bounce in 2008 than Barack Obama, but Obama trounced McCain in November. Barry Goldwater got a bigger bounce in 1964 than Lyndon Johnson, who went on to win the White House by the widest margin in U.S. history.
But the 1964 conventions remind us why these events used to matter. The Republican convention in San Francisco featured an angry debate between supporters of Goldwater and the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller, who denounced the “Communist and Nazi methods” of GOP “extremists”; in his now-famous acceptance speech, Goldwater replied that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Later that summer, in Atlantic City, the Democratic convention was fractured by America’s oldest dilemma: race. In Mississippi, where blacks were barred from voting in the all-white Democratic primary, African-Americans formed a new political party and sent a set of delegates to Atlantic City. But the convention refused to seat the new delegates, sparking recriminations that would resonate across the rest of the decade.
Both parties’ internal struggles were triggered by primary elections, which arose a half-century earlier to challenge the so-called smoke-filled-room system of candidate selection. Like the era’s other electoral reforms, including the secret ballot and the direct election of U.S. senators, primaries aimed to wrest control from party bosses.
Change came slowly. In 1912, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt defeated incumbent William Howard Taft in nine of the ten GOP primaries where they competed. But Taft retained a firm grip on delegates in the non-primary states, which in turn allowed him to retain the Republican nomination.
Yet by 1948, when both major parties held their conventions in Philadelphia, primaries had become the key route to the presidential nomination. Having already lost to Franklin Roosevelt four years earlier, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey had to persuade the GOP to select him again. So he took to the hustings, winning several high-profile primary contests.
But Dewey’s re-nomination wasn’t secured until the convention, where supporters of Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft paraded a baby elephant. Not to be outdone, another challenger’s backers carried a blonde woman in a rowboat with a sign proclaiming, “Man the oars! Ride the crest! Harold Stassen, he’s the best.”
At the Democratic convention, meanwhile, delegates from Mississippi and Alabama marched out to protest a platform plank endorsing civil rights for African-Americans. The dissenters would join the new States Rights Democratic party, which nominated hard-line segregationist Strom Thurmond.
By 1972, nearly half of American states had established presidential primaries. The primaries allowed formerly obscure “outsiders” George McGovern and Jimmy Carter to capture the Democratic nomination in 1972 and 1976, respectively; on the GOP side, meanwhile, Ronald Reagan won all but one of the 1976 primaries west of the Mississippi in his bid to unseat presidential incumbent Gerald R. Ford.
Starting in the 1980s, however, the parties began to reserve a chunk of convention seats for elected officials and insiders known as “superdelegates.” They also started to “frontload” their primary elections, holding them earlier and earlier in the year.
That allowed front-runners to sew up the nomination quickly, rendering the rest of the primaries — and the party convention — meaningless. By 2000, 44 percent of primary voters cast their ballots after the nomination had been decided. Even in this year’s GOP contest, where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich mounted unexpectedly strong challenges, Mitt Romney had essentially secured the nomination by April.
So if you’re looking for high drama, don’t tune into this year’s political conventions. The only thing that would make them interesting would be to hold primaries later in the season, or to get rid of the superdelegates. But the parties aren’t interested in that. And the rest of us are bored.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press)