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Conventions: The 'First Date' That Lasts For Days

Final preparations were under way Monday for the opening of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Democrats are holding their convention next week in Charlotte, N.C.
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images
Final preparations were under way Monday for the opening of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Democrats are holding their convention next week in Charlotte, N.C.

Even some Republicans don't think the loss of Monday's proceedings at their party's national convention in Tampa, due to Tropical Storm Isaac, will matter much in the grand scheme of things.

"The whole drama of the hurricane's very unique here," says David Woodard, a GOP consultant who teaches at Clemson University. "Suppose Isaac wiped out the whole convention — who cares?"

Conventions clearly are a diminished thing, Woodard says. They no longer decide who the presidential nominees are going to be, in anything but a strictly formal sense.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has been assured of the GOP nomination since at least April; President Obama's re-nomination on the Democratic side has been certain all along. It's no longer even a surprise as the conventions open this week and next who the running mates are going to be.

All of that has led to the re-emergence of the quadrennial complaint that conventions serve no useful purpose. Even before the storm threatened the Gulf of Mexico, the major broadcast networks had decided not to offer prime-time coverage of Monday's events.

"It isn't any longer an event that the media cover, in the sense that you would a football game," says Lewis Gould, a historian of the GOP. "It's an event staged for the media as an infomercial."

Contemporary conventions may be utterly lacking in drama, but they do matter. Even in the face of the storm, much of their off-camera work is still being performed, with donors and other partisans meeting with top leaders and future hopefuls and generally firing each other up about the ticket and its prospects.

Once the convention kicks off in earnest Tuesday, Republicans will pursue what has become the gathering's most essential work: framing and presenting a compelling argument as to why Romney, not Obama, is the better leader.

"They don't have as much use as in the olden days in picking the nominees — that part is pro forma and really not interesting anymore," says Dave Carney, a Republican consultant who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's primary campaign.

"But the ability to lay down the argument for the party's ticket, that sort of sets the tone for the whole election in the fall," Carney says.

A Largely Ceremonial Affair

Making the party's case shouldn't take four days, or even a truncated three, says Gould, the historian. "Over the next two weeks, Republicans and Democrats will hold their national conventions," he writes in a forthcoming essay. "With any luck, that won't happen four years from now."

Gould believes both parties could make due with a single "acceptance night," with the nominees of both parties speaking in turn for a total of one hour each (45 minutes for presidential aspirants, 15 minutes for veeps).

Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw made a similar argument on Sunday in The New York Times.

Woodard, the Clemson political scientist, agrees that providing Romney, or any nominee, with his Thursday night audience — which, he notes, is "a shrinking audience by any standard" — is the key remaining function of a convention.

"It's the only time a candidate can get an un-media-filtered message out," Woodard says.

'First Date' With The Nominee

Coverage of the presidential contest never ends in an election year. Neither does political advertising. So to some people, the conventions might feel less like the kickoff of the fall campaign than just another overhyped event along the way.

But the chance for each party to make its case, without terribly much argument or interruption from the other side, is rare. That's why both parties still stretch the events out across multiple nights.

After all, only political junkies pay attention to the campaign's daily ups and downs throughout the year. The conventions are still a time when tens of millions of Americans will be watching and listening and paying attention.

"It's kind of like the candidate's first date with the American people," says Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"In that sense, they're useful because it allows each candidate to present a unified, clear face to the American people without a whole lot of distraction," Olsen says. "There are 16,000 journalists who are dissecting, but primarily reflecting, your message outward."

And while the conventions might not make great television, they do offer the possibility of catching a rising star, as happened when Barack Obama was the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic convention, back when he was still a state legislator.

Many possible future candidates will be holding forth at private fundraisers and state delegation breakfasts.

Still A Lot Of Eyeballs

What Henry Clay wrote back in 1830 — that conventions would be a place where party leaders and the rank-and-file could meet and catch enthusiasm from each other — is still true today, says Stan Haynes, author of The First American Political Conventions.

"I actually think the individuals they matter for most are the partisans that attend them," says Lara Brown, a Villanova University political scientist who was once a delegate to a Democratic convention.

"They're important to rebuild the unity and generate enthusiasm among the party's most core supporters," she says. "It's not an irrelevant role; it's vitally important."

Such internal party communications are essential. But it's the chance to communicate a message, both directly to viewers and through the news media, that keeps the parties in the convention business.

"It can really move the numbers if you have a good convention," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "You may not get them for as long, but you get a lot of eyeballs looking at it."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.