A personal story…
My first political memory goes back to 1956. Our family had just acquired its first television set – in black and white, in those days. And the first event of consequence that year was the Democratic convention. Adlai Stevenson was nominated for president in short order. But then things got interesting. Rather than select his own running mate, Stevenson left the choice to the delegates. The scene was both electric and chaotic as Sens. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts quickly emerged as the major contenders. The band blared, banners were waved, and the numbers changed constantly on the screen as each state cast its vote. Kefauver achieved the needed delegate majority after the second ballot… and I could see my future, following conventions in particular and the electoral process in general.
Yet as is often said, that was then and this is now.
A half century ago, when presidential primaries were few and far between, the conventions were the focal point of the nominating process. All major decisions were made there – on party rules, the platform, the choice of a presidential candidate and ultimately the selection of his running mate. Party infighting, which is now limited to the primary season, was in full view and spun out in largely unscripted fashion. It made for great theater and for consequential politics.
There was a certain order to conventions back then. Monday was taken up with settling any disputes on delegate credentials and convention rules and culminated with the delivery of the keynote address. Tuesday was often devoted to the party platform, with long debate, minority reports and roll-call votes frequently the order of the day. Wednesday’s events were usually the centerpiece of the convention, with the evening’s presidential roll call and the surrounding hoopla a sure source of entertainment. Nominating speeches, seconding speeches, loud demonstrations by delegates on the convention floor followed by the roll call itself, easily made for a memorable evening of politics.
Once the presidential nomination was settled, attention turned to the selection of a vice presidential candidate, whose identity was announced by the presidential nominee some time Thursday. The convention then culminated with acceptance speeches that night by the newly minted national ticket.
Nowadays, the role of the convention is quite different. Party officials go out of their way to mute any signs of internal discord. Major decisions are made beforehand. The presidential nomination is settled during the primaries. The winner makes his vice presidential selection in advance of the convention – fully two weeks in the case of GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. And the platform and rules are usually hammered out beforehand as well. That leaves the three or four day convention abundant time to focus on speechmaking, which gives it the tone of a giant pep rally.
Not surprisingly, the modern convention is not nearly as compelling as it once was. But highly scripted as it is, it still has significance. The convention offers each party an unobstructed block of time to make their case to the American people as well as introduce their ticket on a national stage – a particularly important factor for the “out” party in years such as this when an incumbent president is on the ballot.
A successful convention also brings together party leaders and activists from across the country in one place, and energizes them and the party faithful watching at home for the fall campaign. If an independent voter or two are converted in the process, all the better.
Dissent to the End
The recently completed Republican convention in Tampa appears to have met these goals. But it was not without a bump or two. One of these was the presidential roll call, which was held on Aug. 28 under the cover of daylight.
Over the last few decades, the GOP balloting has been a triumphant coronation, with the nominee drawing a unanimous or virtually unanimous share of the delegates. But that was not the case this time, as more than 200 of the 2,286 delegates cast votes for candidates other than Romney. It was the largest number of delegates withheld from the Republican nominee since President Gerald Ford barely beat back the challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976.
The main recipient of non-Romney votes was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who doubled his share of primary ballots from last time (from roughly 1 to 2 million), while increasing his share of delegates more than tenfold (from 17 to 190). Paul did not win any primary or first-round caucus votes this year. But his libertarian message drew an intense cadre of supporters who were particularly effective in relatively low turnout caucus states. Paul won a majority of delegates in three such states – Iowa, Minnesota and Nevada – dominating the less public, later stages of the process.
His success in these venues led to some friction between Paul, his supporters and national party leaders that could extend into the fall. The Texas representative left Tampa saying that he was undecided for whom he would vote in November. If it turns out that he publicly supports not Romney but the Libertarian Party ticket headed by former New Mexico Gov. (and former Republican) Gary Johnson, that could hurt the Romney-Ryan ticket in a number of closely fought swing states. And if that would happen, then the Tampa convention might not look so successful after all.