How a Nominating Convention Is Like a Wedding

No one will want to sit next to the crazy uncle, there will be too many speeches, and the hosts may embarrass themselves. So, how do you plan this thing?

At the 2008 Republican convention. (Reuters)

Pity the organizers of the Democratic and Republican conventions this year. The host governors -- Bev Perdue in North Carolina and Rick Scott in Florida -- happen to be two of the least popular state executives in the country. But geographic protocols demand that they address the convention hall. What to do?

The chosen few devising the lineup for a party's nominating convention are not unlike wedding planners drawing up the seating chart for a dysfunctional family. There are egos to be stroked, aesthetics to consider, and dramas to be avoided. Even the uncle no one can stand -- Donald Trump? -- has to sit somewhere.

And just like the bride and groom forced to winnow down their guest lists, convention organizers are faced with limited time slots, especially during prime time, when coveted undecided voters may be watching. Political operatives view these fence-sitters like squirrels, prone to being easily startled by the sudden movements and high-pitched rhetoric of, say, Republican firebrands such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Rep. Allen West of Florida, and erstwhile presidential candidate Ron Paul. Building the ideal lineup of speakers over several nights is based on a complicated formula that aims to boost favorable views of the nominee and the party's brand.

"There's a story you want to tell, a picture you want to paint," said Republican consultant Ed Goeas, who helped coordinate the 2008 convention, giving an artist's rendition of a baldly political process. "You frame it thematically for that night and then you start looking at the brush strokes. All of it has to fit together to make that picture."

The Republican Party at least partly defused questions over Scott's role at its convention in Tampa by including him on Monday in an initial list of "headliners." Media outlets have already picked up on the tension between a state party trumpeting the governor's economic progress and a GOP nominee conveying a much gloomier picture of the economy. By announcing Scott's presence in the lineup, the GOP may have headed off more speculation about conflict between the two camps. (It goes without saying that if you're a convention organizer or a wedding planner, conflict is bad.)

"But they didn't say when he's going to speak. It could be for five minutes at 5:35 a.m. Eastern Time,'' noted Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, whose latest survey found that 52 percent of Florida voters disapprove of Scott's performance. "Just because you're speaking doesn't mean anybody is listening."

Perdue's disapproval rating is even worse -- 59 percent according to a June survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh. Pegged as the most vulnerable Democratic governor in the country, Perdue announced back in January that she would not seek reelection. A convention official asked about her role said: "In keeping with convention tradition, Gov. Perdue will speak and deliver the welcome."

"It won't be prime time," quipped Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who helped orchestrate the 2004 convention. (He described his role this way: "I got to make choices that made people unhappy. Thankfully, I usually wasn't the one who had to tell them.")

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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