National Party Conventions

Party Conventions

National party conventions take place for each party in a presidential election year, usually lasting over three or four days. Modern conventions are attended by the delegates selected through the primary process. As such, they mark the end of the primary process and kickstart the presidential election campaign.

With the creation of national primaries in 1968, the role of conventions has changed. Their role

The Functions of National Party Conventions

Formal funtions

Informal functions

1. Select the presidential and vice presidential candidates for the party Delegates vote to decide who is the presidential nominee. The rules of each party require that a candidate gains over 50 per cent of delegates. If no candidate achieves this, a brokered convention takes place requiring more rounds of voting. It would be more accurate to say that the convention confirms — rather than chooses — the party’s presidential candidate. Not since the Republican convention of 1976 has the choice of the presidential candidate really been in any doubt at the opening of either party’s convention. In that year, President Gerald Ford defeated the former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes. Had 60 delegates switched from Ford to Reagan, Reagan would have won.

2. Decide the policy platform

Delegates debate and vote to determine the policy of the party (and therefore the candidate) for the presidential election. The convention takes place over several days, allowing for detailed policy debate. In 2016, the most contentious platform debate at the Republican convention was on issues regarding sexuality. The Platform Committee proposed a platform with a ‘staunchly conservative’ view on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and transgender issues, calling for the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges (2015), which declared the rights of same-sex couples to be married a constitutional right, to be overturned. When the platform came to the convention floor, it was approved merely on a voice vote with only a few ‘nays’ audible.

The Democratic platform 2016 was the focus of an intense struggle between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The 15-member Platform Committee was made up of six Clinton appointees and five Sanders appointees, with the remaining four appointed by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Bernie Sanders’ supporters announced that they were largely satisfied with the resulting document which, for example, expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and index-linking it to inflation — a top Sanders priority — as well as support for Wall Street reform, another top Sanders issue.

(In the formal sense it is arguable that the traditional roles of the party convention are insignificant, and serve no real purpose.)

Conventions are nothing more than a 'rubber stamp', especially given that the party candidate is known in advance. In 2012 Romney's nearest competitor withdrew his nomination by April.

· Genuine policy debate, to create a party platform, has been replaced by the need for unity. Conventions rarely discuss controversial or divisive policy issues as this can lead to party splits, as with the Republicans in the 1996 convention over abortion. Similarly, the platform is not binding on the president or party members.

· Vice-presidential candidates are now chosen and announced by the presidential candidate in advance of the convention, as with Romney's choice of Paul Ryan more than 2 weeks before the Republican convention in 2012. However, though often apparent well beforehand, conventions remain an opportunity to present a balanced ticket to the electorate.

The speeches by Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 were designed to heal the party wounds, which had arisen during the primaries.

1. To act as publicity for the candidate

Conventions mark the start of the campaign and are a key part of the process. The winning candidate can sell their message to the public, often through attacks on the other party, stage-managed speeches by other politicians and endorsement by celebrities. The choice of state is also important: party conventions are often held in swing states.

2. To reunite the party

Conventions can be very important for parties after the divisive primary process. The battle between candidates from the same party can be put aside. Losing candidates often give speeches endorsing the winner. This can create positive publicity and help win the election.This may be the most important function of all. The primaries can turn into bitter personal battles, and it is vital that internal party wounds are healed before the general election campaign begins. Divided parties are rarely winning parties. The convention gives a golden opportunity to heal the wounds.

At the 2008 Democratic convention, it was important that the party portrayed a united front following the bitter personal rivalry during the primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. By the time the primaries ended in early June, Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president — felt aggrieved that she had not triumphed in a nomination race that was widely thought to be hers for the taking. Both had seemed to suggest that Obama did not have the experience or leadership qualities to be president. But at the convention, both Clintons endorsed Barack Obama wholeheartedly in their respective speeches. Speaking on the second night of the convention, Hillary Clinton declared herself to be 'a proud supporter of Barack Obama' and went on to state: 'Barack Obama is my candidate, and he must be our president.' Picking up his wife's theme the following night in his speech, former President Bill Clinton declared to rapturous applause from the delegates: 'Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama. That makes two of us!' In 2016 Bernie Sanders urged his supporters to support Hilary Clinton.

There are, however, examples of conventions at which party unity was not rebuilt: the 1992 Republican convention, where President George H. W. Bush remained at loggerheads with his primary election rival, Pat Buchanan; and the 1980 Democrat convention, where President Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy continued their unfriendly rivalry. It is no coincidence that Bush and Carter were both defeated later in the year. In 2008, Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who had won some significant support in the Republican primaries and caucuses, refused to endorse John McCain at the Republican convention and held a rival event across town. In 2016 Ted Cruz did not endorse Trump and leading Republicans such as George Bush did not attend the Convention.

The importance of modern-day conventions

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published towards the end of August 2008 asked the following question: 'As you may know, the Democrat and Republican parties will be holding their national conventions in the next few weeks. How important will these conventions be in helping you decide how to vote for president in November?' A mere 29% of respondents said the conventions would be 'important' while 71% said they would be 'less important'. Only 12% described the conventions as 'extremely important'. So as far as the voters go, modern-day conventions are seemingly of little importance In comparison to the conventions of years ago, modern-day conventions are of little importance. The conventions are highly orchestrated and designed to creates a slick image of party unity. Modern-day convention has its eye on entertainment and a TV audience. There will be celebrities as 'ordinary citizens' who have a heartwarming story to tell. The party conventions of 2012 featured an ageing film star in Clint Eastwood, an Iraq war veteran and a worker from General Motors. Most of the politica stuff happens outside prime time, such as the 'roll call' — once one of the highlights of the convention.

However even with the new entertainment focus television coverage of the conventions has declined significantly in recent years. In 1968, the three terrestrial television companies— ABC, CBS and NBC—putout 46 hours of coverage of that year's Republican convention. Forty-four years later, in 2012, the same three companies managed just 9 hours of coverage of the Republican convention — 1 hour on each evening on each channel. The only comprehensive television coverage was to be found on the cable news channels — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS and C-SPAN. This decline in convention coverage by the three terrestrial television stations is a result not only of the hugely increased choice that Americans now have with regard to TV channels but also of the decline in the formal significance of conventions.

However, conventions still have significant informal functions. They a time for celebrating the glorious history of the party- Republicans like to remember Ronald Reagan, but they can also be important in identifying the rising stars of the future. In 2004, Barack Obama, gave a stunning speech and 4 years later he returned to the convention as its presidential nominee.

National Party Conventions can still be of importance because millions of Americans who take little interest in the campaign will tune in for the key moments of the conventions. As election scholar Stephen Wayne (2001) put it, the conventions 'may have become less newsworthy, but they are still important'.

2016 Conventions

Republican Convention- Cleveland Ohio.

  • Seen as poorly organised- mocked for B-list celebrities.

  • Clint Eastwood's rather odd speech where he talks to a chair.

  • A stop Trump protest on day one,

  • Melania's speech

  • Very negative theme of a broken and crime-ridden America

  • Ted Cruz booed off the stage for not endorsing Trump

  • Neither ex- presidents Bush came

  • The official party platform opposed gay marriage. However, Peter Thiel, PayPal's co-founder, gave a speech on the importance of economic strategy, saying issues of who should use which bathroom should not dominate their thinking. He was the first Republican convention speaker to refer to his homosexuality.

  • Trump's final night speech appealed to his populist base, talking about immigration and his proposed wall at the Mexican border, terrorism and withdrawal from trade deals. He pledged to protect LGBT rights from a 'hateful foreign ideology'. Some pollsters reported a 3-4% bounce in ratings.

    • Final night broadcast audience: 34.9 million

Democratic Convention Philadephia 2016

  • Pro- Bernie Sanders protest on the first day, but Bernie fully endorses Hilary

  • Choice of Tim Kaine seen as safe but dull

  • Michelle Obama gives a brilliant speech

  • Speech by Mr & Mrs Khan accusing Trump 'smearing the character of Muslims'

  • A rule change was adopted to reduce the role of `superdelegates'. The Sanders team wanted superdelegates to be bound to public voting, but a compromise meant that about two-thirds of superdelegates are bound to state results.

  • Clinton's final-night speech focused on her experience, judgement and compassion based on experience. Clinton prioritised job creation, appealing to Trump's key demographic support, as well as climate change and college affordability. She also attacked 'little men' like Trump.

    • Final night broadcast audience: 33.7 million

  • Case Study: The 2016 nominations Democrat and Republican

2020 Conventions

Republican August 24 to 27, 2020

  • Held remotely from various locations including Fort McHenry and the White House

  • Trump was the incumbent but opinion polls showed him behind Biden.

  • At events with in-person audiences, masks and social distancing were largely absent. Many audience members had not been tested for COVID-19

  • The appropriateness of having the incumbent secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, address a political convention was questioned.[Pompeo's modern predecessors had avoided political conventions while serving as secretary of state.

  • Some experts and politicians have questioned the legality of the use of the White House for convention speeches and other portions of the convention

  • Eric Trump, his girl friend, Ivanka and Tiffany all spoke-

The convention was seen as more professional then 2016- but the lack of huge crowds prevented Trump form projecting his usual - persona

Tended to highlight his relaxed attitude to the pandemic.

The Democrat Convention 2020

August 17 to 20, 2020, at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and virtually across the United States.

Speakers included:

Seen a s successfully delivering a safe message of good feelings and unity. Nothing too left wing or aggressive. The message was clear- Biden is not Trump. While his electoral poll numbers may not have received a bounce, some polling showed Biden to have received a boost in favorability ratings

The Democrat Convention 2020- Aimed to do no harm, heal the party and project Biden as a nice if dull guy-It succeeded.

The Republican Convention 2020 - Aimed to energise Trump supporters and it succeeded-but it also energised his opponents.