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National political conventions – what’s the point?

(AP Photos)

When was the last time anything truly major happened at a Republican or Democratic national convention?

Many ask: What’s the point these days of a political convention? What exactly will be accomplished when Republicans gather in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 27-30, and the Democrats Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte, N.C.?

In the earliest years of the republic, members of Congress actually chose the candidates for president and vice president. But that eventually broke down and gave way to conventions.

At the Democrats’ first convention in 1832, they officially adopted their present name, set down some convention rules that lasted into the 20th century, and re-nominated President Andrew Jackson to run for a second term, but booted Vice President James C. Calhoun in favor of Martin Van Buren.

In their first convention in 1856, the fledgling Republican Party nominated John Fremont, a 43-year-old retired Army officer known as “The Trail Blazer” and “Pathfinder,” who gained popularity for his journeys west and his role in wresting California from Mexico. Four years later, the Republicans would nominate Abraham Lincoln.

From the beginning, conventions were controlled by the people who held power and controlled the party. This conjures up visions of decisions being made in smoke-filled backrooms. Of course, sometimes such decisions were made during heated contests and debates on smoke-filled convention floors.

Choosing nominees began to spread to the broader party base in the early 20th century through primaries and caucuses, with Oregon becoming the first state to adopt a presidential primary in 1910. Nonetheless, conventions still mattered, with the deeply divided 1924 Democratic Convention taking 103 ballots and

16 days to choose John W. Davis of West Virginia, who got trounced by Republican President Calvin Coolidge in the general election.

In 1952, Adlai Stevenson became the compromise candidate on the Democratic Convention’s third ballot. And even in 1980, though he had not earned enough support in primaries and caucuses, Ted Kennedy attempted to grab the nomination from President Jimmy Carter at the Democratic Convention by working to defeat a rule that would commit delegates on the first ballot to the candidates they pledged to in the primaries and caucuses. Kennedy’s long shot effort failed.

As for Republicans, their 1940 convention was a wide-open affair, with Wendell Willkie, a businessman who had never run for office, eventually coming out on top on the sixth ballot. Of course, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was re-elected for an unprecedented third term, thrashed Willkie.

As recent as 1976, the GOP did not have things settled heading into a convention. President Gerald Ford and his challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, came to the convention short of the necessary number of votes to secure the nomination. While many said that Reagan had the party’s heart, Ford had the power of White House incumbency. Ford held on in the end for the nomination, later losing the election to Carter.

But such convention excitement and consequence are things of the past. No doubts or questions exist coming into conventions any more as to who the candidate will be.

Today, the main purpose of party conventions is to serve as a massive, multi-day campaign commercial. Despite the fact that the campaign has been going strong since at least late last year, the voting public really starts tuning in with and after the party conventions.

What’s most important in these big, expensive commercials? Obviously, it’s the speeches by the two presidential candidates, and to a far lesser degree, the addresses made by their respective running mates.

Will the commercials hit the right chords with voters or not? Like other forms of advertising, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Despite the cynicism at work in politics, which is nothing new by the way, content still matters. That is, the ideas espoused by the candidates, their supporters and party platforms at conventions make real and significant differences when it comes to how people vote. Of course, in the ideal world, such differences in governing philosophies and policy positions would matter most in terms of who winds up winning and losing. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing perfect in the world, especially when it comes to politics.

Given the commercial and policy aspects of conventions, it follows that the effectiveness of conventions are gauged usually via the post-convention bump or bounce in the polls. According to Gallup, post-convention bounces have been seen after nearly every national convention since 1964. But in 2004, Democrat John Kerry actually lost a point in post-convention polling, and George McGovern was flat after the 1972 Democratic Convention.

Sometimes the bounce lasts, and at other times, it’s temporary. Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 rode such bounces on to victory. Interestingly, some of the biggest post-convention bounces did not make a difference in the end, such as with Al Gore in 2000, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Carter in 1980 — they all lost.

So, the Republican and Democratic conventions will matter, but not anywhere near as much as conventions did long ago. Of course, for all of our political problems, we’re better off with primaries and caucuses rather than unsavory wheeling and dealing on convention floors and in backrooms, smoke-filled or not.

— Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

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