It happens like clockwork. Every four years in the days before the conventions, the press, as they are packing their bags to head off to them, bemoan the fact that they don’t matter. Broadcast media have more or less abandoned coverage of the conventions to a few hours a week and left it to the cable networks and to social media. The Democrats have shortened their convention from four days to three.
It does make one wonder: Why have these things in the first place?
Well, for one thing, the convention is still the place where the nominee is officially chosen. Mitt Romney won’t be the Republican nominee, nor will President Obama be the Democratic nominee, until their conventions vote on them. At that moment their legal status will change and they will automatically be placed on the ballots of all fifty 50 states. This vote is one of the reasons why the Republicans are breaking tradition and having their roll call vote on the first night of their Tampa convention — if Isaac (as of this writing, a tropical storm) hits and they have to evacuate, at least their nominee will be official.
But modern conventions are not exciting because delegates arrive already committed to a presidential candidate. In the old days, every convention had a large portion of “uncommitted” delegates in attendance. Before the invention of primaries in the early 20th century, everyone came to the convention uncommitted. But even after primaries began, the tradition of “uncommitted” delegates lived on.
For instance, in the 1952 and 1956 Democratic conventions, about half of the delegates (51 percent) were either uncommitted or committed to a “favorite son” (a politician who ran for president only in his own state). At the 1952 Republican Convention, 28 percent of the delegates arrived uncommitted; even in the 60s, 35 percent arrived uncommitted to the 1964 Republican Convention. With that many uncommitted delegates, the eyes and ears of the nation were glued to the action on the convention floor.
The reform movement that hit the Democratic Party in 1972 moved the action from the convention itself to the primaries preceding it. The result? Since 1972, the number of uncommitted delegates at a convention has never topped 20 percent, and in the past decade it has been zero.
Once in a while, however, modern conventions do become worth watching. At the 1972 Democratic Convention, the old bulls of the Democratic Party united under “Anybody but McGovern” and attempted to move the convention delegates away from George McGovern, who they thought was too radical to win a general election. They failed.
In 1976, the country sat spellbound as the charismatic conservative leader Ronald Reagan, who had come tantalizingly close to unseating the sitting President Gerald Ford, attempted to win over the uncommitted Mississippi votes in a strategy that could have opened up the convention for him. He failed.
In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy tried the same thing against President Jimmy Carter. He failed.
This history of failure, and the intra-party acrimony it leaves behind, is probably the reason Hillary Clinton didn’t take her own quest for the nomination to the convention in 2008, even though she was temptingly close to Obama in delegates.
So these modern conventions may be boring, but they are not obsolete. All those delegates in silly hats and elephant ears have the final say in who gets to run for president. Which is why all the pundits grumbling about conventions will be there after all.