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Are we watching the last national conventions?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

The Democratic National Convention opening Tuesday in Charlotte will be the 86th national convention of our two major parties. Republicans have an unbroken chain of conventions going back to 1856; the Democrats’ unbroken chain goes back to 1832, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving (and only Catholic) signer of the Declaration of Independence was still alive. In my August 26 Examiner column, the conventions, which used to be a communications medium and decision-making forum, have become opportunities for the two parties to make the case for their nominees, and I argued that “an antique form still serves a useful function.”

I speculated in a blogpost that this would be the last four-day national convention (the Democrats having already cancelled their Monday Labor Day session). Others are speculating that we may not see national conventions again at all. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Right Turn blogger Jennifer Rubin, former New Hampshire Governor and Romney campaign spokesman John Sununu, said “This may be the last convention, in my opinion.” Rubin goes on: “Conventions, [Sununu] says, are from a bygone era when communication and travel were difficult. Now much of the business of conventions can be transacted by phone or email. Sununu speculates that the GOP Convention will cost $100 million. ‘I can do a lot of good with $100 million,’ he says.”

 Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner, the chairman of this convention, was quoted in Roll Call as saying, “These are very expensive propositions to put on. I think that given as much news as people get today and the way they get their news, I’m not sure that having a four-day convention for the future makes a lot of sense.”

There are two constituencies for the conventions. The first is the parties, which believe that the conventions often, though not always, help their nominees. They get a chance to make their case to a larger audience than is ordinarily paying attention. And they often get a bounce in the polls, as I noted in last Tuesday’s Examiner.

The first polling evidence in, from Rasmussen Reports, shows Romney leading 48%-44% in three-day tracking, up from the previous week, but no more than Romney has been ahead at several points in Rasmussen’s tracking since he clinched the Republican nomination. We’ll have a better idea whether either candidate gets a bounce in two weeks. If not, the parties may well sour on the conventions.

The second constituency for the conventions is the press. We love, or have loved them, because they give us ready access to politicians from all over the country—to a lot of fun parties with celebrities political and nonpolitical. But I noticed that, at least until 10:00 at the three Tampa sessions, the aisles of the convention floor were not crowded and the press gallery personnel had large numbers of floor passes available.

When I asked for one on Thursday night before 9:00, the gallery folks rather than limit me to 30 or 45 minutes as is the usual practice said I could have it for the night. Reporters evidently preferred to remain in the press seats with their electronic gear within ready reach.

Conventions are hugely expensive to news organizations, especially television networks, and print press and broadcast television managers are desperate to cut costs. The press is already OK with three-day conventions. If the press turns against the conventions, that could be the end. What we might get instead is one-day conclaves formally nominating candidates (to meet state ballot requirements) which get no more coverage than hundreds of political gatherings in the campaign cycle.

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Author:

Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner