In Cleveland, Donald Trump has vowed to shake up what he has called a “boring” format by bringing in some of his non-politician athlete and celebrity friends. He’s also suggested he might speak to the convention every night and dramatically unveil his running mate at the last minute—all in the name of spicing up what has become a formulaic ritual.
The Democratic convention in Philadelphia, on the other hand, should look a lot like the recent past, with speeches from the Clintons, Hillary’s yet-to-be-announced running mate, President Obama and Vice President Biden, likely Bernie Sanders, and a few of the party’s rising stars.
Technically, the conventions for both Republicans and Democrats are formal party proceedings. Each is a dressed-up legislative session held in an arena, where delegates vote on matters that have both symbolic and actual importance, including the party platform, rules, and, yes, the presidential and vice presidential nominees.
Only in the last 30 to 40 years have the roll-call votes for president and vice president been faits accomplis. Before the 1970s, the primaries and caucuses that preceded the conventions “were of limited importance,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. The conventions frequently began with multiple viable candidates for the nomination who made their pitches to party leaders and coalitions of state delegations. The parties sometimes needed several ballots to determine the nominee, who often had to negotiate with the party on the selection of a running mate. In 1924, Democrats met in New York for 16 days, the longest political convention in U.S. history. It took nine days and 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis, who went on to lose to the incumbent, President Calvin Coolidge, in the general election.
The last “contested convention” occurred for Republicans in 1976, when President Gerald Ford held off a challenge from Ronald Reagan to capture the nomination. Four years later, Ted Kennedy failed in his bid to wrest the Democratic nomination from President Jimmy Carter in New York by trying to get the party to release delegates bound to Carter.
As Republicans prepare to head to Cleveland, a group of delegates wants to toss Donald Trump from the top of the ticket. Polls show that Trump would be the most unpopular major-party nominee in history, but the “Dump Trump” coalition still has decades of history trending against it. Since primaries and caucuses became the principal means of nominee selection 40 years ago, no candidate in either party who has entered a convention with the most delegates has failed to secure the nomination.
If nothing else, anti-Trump forces should be able to succeed in adding drama to the roll-call vote on his nomination, which in recent conventions have been ratified by acclamation as a show of party unity. Trump’s former presidential rivals, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, will have a chance to formally receive the delegate votes they won during the primaries. Even after the bitter contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, the Democratic Party arranged for Clinton to appear on the convention floor and call for a suspension of the roll-call vote to demonstrate her support and rally her backers behind Obama. Democrats are hoping Bernie Sanders will agree to a similar maneuver this summer in Philadelphia, although it seems unlikely the same will happen with Republicans in Cleveland.