It's time to cancel all national political conventions

Even before Isaac rained on the parade, the GOP convention was sure to garner only modest interest and make little impact. Why do party leaders even bother?

Edward Morrissey

Republicans canceled the first day of their national convention, thanks to the potential for disruption from Tropical Storm Isaac. And according to National Journal, the storm's potential impact on the Gulf Coast has some in the GOP wondering if the convention should take place on a single night. Here's an even better idea: Maybe both parties should cancel the events entirely.

The quadrennial national conventions hearken back to bygone days of American elections. Conventions have been romanticized in films like The Best Man, in which Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson slugged it out for the party's nomination in a tough floor fight, only to have their dirty machinations enable a cleaner candidate to emerge as the winner. The Manchurian Candidate takes a much less romantic view, but again frames conventions as a forum for the critical choice of nominees.

Let's face it: The days when conventions controlled party nominations for the presidency have long since passed. Although every four years the political media wishes for an open convention, the last year in which a major-party nominee had to win the nod at a brokered convention was 1952, and the last time a nominee from a brokered convention actually won the general election was 1932 — 80 years ago. Ever since, the primary/caucus system has produced clear nominees for first-ballot victories, most of those pro-forma events.

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Even when the national conventions did have the power to pick nominees, the process was anything but savory. State parties used the caucus system to choose delegates in the same manner that they chose nominees for state and local offices, a system that was rife with corruption and still to this day produces confusion and disarray. The primary system and the secret ballot provided much-needed reform to the electoral process at every level of politics, and a full adoption of the primary system along with bound delegates would make the conventions completely unnecessary in most cases, at least in terms of nominating presidential candidates.

Why do both parties spend tens of millions of dollars on such useless efforts?

So why do we have conventions when the outcomes are hardly in doubt? Parties have to set the rules for the next primary season and establish their platforms. Needless to say, this is about as exciting as watching paint dry. These tasks usually take place in afternoons when television cameras are mostly directed elsewhere. Occasionally they make news, as has happened with some proposed rules changes this year that have angered some Republican grassroots organizations, and especially Ron Paul supporters.

However, having participated in a few rules debates at conventions, I can assure people that even this level of anger will not produce much in the way of compelling TV viewing, unless voters secretly long for lengthy discourses on the differences between "shall" and "may." Most voters care about the economy and jobs, not intra-party rules fights, and wouldn't recognize a platform plank if it bit them — and that's true of most officeholders, too. Parties could conduct these debates separately from the presidential nomination process, and spend a lot less money on the effort.

In the evenings, of course, conventions feature more provocative fare — politicians giving speeches. Before the advent of the internet, this may have provided a novelty for some Americans, who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to see a potential nominee speak at length, having had to satisfy themselves instead with sound bites provided by local and national news broadcasters. Today, however, every speech given by a politician lives forever on their websites, YouTube channels, Tumblr pages, and Facebook accounts. Not only can voters watch speeches at their own pace, they can also watch commentary on the speeches, read the transcripts, and debate their meaning on social-networking platforms — all with or without a national convention.

Perhaps this is why a Rasmussen poll this week shows that most voters have little interest in the national conventions of either party. Twenty-seven percent of likely voters will watch all or most of the Republican and/or Democratic conventions; only 16 percent of independents plan to do so. The likelihood of these being previously unengaged and undecided voters is not exactly high, and even before the convention coverage starts, 35 percent of likely voters believe the media has paid too much attention to them.

Nor does a convention seem to matter that much in the outcome of the election. Gallup reviewed the last 15 presidential elections and found that the candidate leading in their poll prior to either convention won 12 of the 15 contests. The three exceptions — 1988, 1992, and 2004 — had no particular convention issue for either party that suddenly boosted or demolished a nominee.

So let's recap. Conventions are an anachronistic throwback to not-so-good old days of party bosses choosing candidates, garner little interest, and make little impact. The question isn't whether the Republican Party should contract its schedule to one, two, or three nights, or whether Democrats should do the same. It's why we bother to hold these events at all anymore when the nominees are certain, and why both parties spend tens of millions of dollars on such a useless effort.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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