Conventions Just Aren't What They Used to Be

DNC floor being set up on September 2, 2012. (National Journal)

At 181 years old, the national party convention is showing its age. But despite the guaranteed attacks from those who yearn for the old days of floor fights, multiple ballots, and delegates stampeded by rousing rhetoric, the modern convention is hanging in there, still playing a pivotal role in presidential campaigns. Surprisingly, the Republican convention that just ended could have been the three most important days of Mitt Romney's fall campaign.

This is true even though the Tampa event was just a shadow of what these gatherings used to be. We haven't seen a fistfight on a convention floor since 1952, when delegates for Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower slugged it out in Chicago. No multi-ballot nomination battle since that same year, when it took three rounds of voting for Democrat Adlai Stevenson to put away Estes Kefauver. And there's been little suspense even about a vice presidential nomination since 1956, when Stevenson unexpectedly left the decision up to the delegates.

But what Romney's Republicans had — and what President Obama's Democrats will have when they open their convention here in Charlotte — is something unimagined when those 116 delegates gathered in Baltimore in 1831 at the first national party convention: a huge television audience and a last real chance to present a largely unfiltered message to undecided voters.

The importance of the conventions is clear from research conducted over the past six decades by the American National Election Studies, a collaboration of the University of Michigan and Stanford University. After every election since 1948, the researchers have asked voters when they made their choice for president. Most said they either "knew all along" or settled on their candidate the day he announced. But millions of voters make their decision during the conventions.

This is no surprise to veteran campaign strategists, and it is why they work so hard to script and control every minute. Tad Devine is a veteran of six Democratic conventions, working for five candidates. "I've seen it," he told Convention Daily. "I know it is a hugely important moment in the campaign, just as important as one of the debates. I saw that with [Al] Gore in 2000. We went into the convention trailing by 17 points. And by the time we left Los Angeles, Gore was 5 points ahead.... So 22 million people changed their mind in a week."

Devine recalls similar movement for Democrat Michael Dukakis after his 1988 acceptance speech in Atlanta. Now, that speech was criticized for his declaration that the election "isn't about ideology, it's about competence." But Devine said the emphasis on jobs and the economy was what viewers heard, and what propelled the Massachusetts governor to a big lead in the polls over George H.W. Bush before Dukakis ceded the stage to Republicans at their convention.

This is possible because millions of Americans who have shunned the campaign all year tune in for the key moments of the conventions. "That's what makes the convention critically important," said Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied the events.

The quadrennial gatherings have come a long way on TV since the 1948 conventions — first the Republicans, followed two weeks later by the Democrats — were aired live from Philadelphia on four networks to just 18 stations in nine cities. Now, they are the most-watched political events except for the fall debates. And the numbers keep growing. In 2008, more people watched the speeches by Obama, John McCain, and Sarah Palin than watched the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, the finale of American Idol, or the Academy Awards.

Republicans were the first to understand the evolution from nominating fight to TV show. Ron Walker, GOP convention manager in 1984 and an organizer at seven different conventions, helped Republicans write a minute-by-minute script for Miami in 1972. "We scripted that thing down to a gnat's ass," he boasted years later. Democrats were slower to catch on. In an interview in 1996, Robert Strauss said it was not until 1974, when he was Democratic National Committee chairman, that he "came to the decision that this was purely ... a television show."

Today, no question the production is smoother than those first televised conventions in Philly. Back then, Democratic organizers, wanting to cast theirs as the party of peace, got the bright idea to put boxes of live doves on stage to be released dramatically skyward. Unfortunately, those running the show didn't comprehend the intense heat of those early TV lights, and when the doves were "let go," half were already dead.