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U.S. presidential nominating convention

From Academic Kids

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Speeches by important party figures are key features of the convention; here, former President Jimmy Carter addresses the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

A U.S. presidential nominating convention is held every four years in the United States by the political parties who will be fielding nominees in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The formal purpose of the convention is to select the party's nominee for President, as well as to adopt a statement of party principles and goals known as the platform and adopt the rules for the party's activities, including the presidential nominating process for the next election cycle. Due to changes in election laws and the manner in which political campaigns are run, conventions since the last quarter of the 20th century have virtually abdicated their original roles, and are today mostly ceremonial affairs.

The two major conventions are the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. This article provides an overview of the major party conventions; however, some minor parties also select their nominees by convention, including the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Constitution Party, and Reform Party USA.


Contents

Logistics

Calendar

From the viewpoint of the parties, the convention cycle begins with the Call to Convention. Usually issued about 18 months in advance, the Call is an invitation from the national party to the state and territory parties to convene to select a presidential nominee. It also sets out the number of delegates to be awarded to each, as well as the rules for the nomination process.

Since 1932, the party out of power has convened first. Since 1952, all major party conventions have been held in the months of July or August. In recent years, conventions are typically scheduled about one month apart, each with four days of business scheduled.

Participation

Each party sets its own rules for the participation and format of the convention. Broadly speaking, each U.S. state and territory party is apportioned a select number of voting representatives, individually known as delegates and collectively as the delegation. Each party uses its own formula for determining the size of each delegation, factoring in such considerations as population, proportion of that state's Congressional representatives or state government officials who are members of the party, and the state's voting patterns in previous presidential elections. The selection of individual delegates and their alternates, too, is governed by the bylaws of each state party, or in some cases by state law.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention counted 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates. The 2004 Republican National Convention had 2,509 delegates and 2,344 alternates. But these individuals are dwarfed by other attendees who do not participate in the formal business of the convention. These include non-delegate party officials and activists, invited guests and companions, and international observers, not to mention numerous members of the news media, volunteers, and protesters, and local business proprietors and promoters hoping to capitalize on the quadrennial event.

Host city

The convention is typically held in a major city selected by the national party organization 18-24 months before it is to be held. As the two major conventions have grown into large, publicized affairs with significant economic impact, cities today compete vigorously to be awarded host responsibilities, citing their meeting venues, lodging facilities, and entertainment as well as offering economic incentives.

The location of early conventions was dictated by the difficulty of transporting delegates from far-flung parts of the country; early Democratic and Whig Conventions were frequently held in the central Eastern Seaboard port of Baltimore, Maryland. As the U.S. expanded westward and railroads connected cities, Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Illinois became the favored hosts. In the present day, political symbolism affects the selection of the host city as much as economic or logistical ones do. A particular city might be selected to enhance the standing of a native son, or in an effort to curry favor with residents of that state.


Proceedings

During the day, party activists hold meetings and rallies, and work on the platform. Voting and important convention-wide addresses usually take place in the evening hours.

In recent conventions, routine business such as examining the credentials of delegations, ratifying rules, and procedures, and adoption of the platform usually take up the business of the first two days of the convention. Balloting is usually held on the third day, with the nomination and acceptance made on the last day.

Platform

Each convention produces a statement of principles known as its platform, containing goals and proposals known as planks. Relatively little of a party platform is even proposed as public policy. Much of the language is generic, while other sections are narrowly written to appeal to factions or interest groups within the party. Unlike electoral manifestos in many European countries, the platform is not binding on either the party or the candidate.

Because it is ideological rather than pragmatic, however, the platform is sometimes itself politicized. For example, defenders of abortion rights lobbied heavily to remove the Human Life Amendment plank from the 1996 Republican platform, a move fiercely resisted by conservatives despite the fact that no such amendment had ever come up for debate.

Voting

Since the 1970s, voting has for the most part been perfunctory; the selection of the nominee has rarely been in doubt, so a single ballot has almost always been sufficient. Each delegation announces its vote tallies, usually accompanied with some boosterism of their state or territory. The delegation may pass, nominally to retally their delegates' preferences, but often to allow a different delegation to give the leading candidate the honor of casting the majority-making vote.

Speeches

Minor party figures are given the opportunity to address the floor of the convention during the daytime, when only the small audiences of C-SPAN and other cable television outlets are watching. Evenings speeches—designed for broadcast to a large national audience—are reserved for major speeches by notable, respected public figures; the speakers at the 2004 Democratic convention included Ted Kennedy, a forty-year veteran of the United States Senate and notable liberal, and Jimmy Carter, a former Democratic president, while at the Republican convention speakers include Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Pataki, popular and nationally-known governors of major states.

The organizers of the convention may designate one of these speeches as the keynote address, one which above all others is stated to underscore the convention's themes or political goals. For instance, the 1992 Democratic National Convention keynote address was delivered by Georgia Governor Zell Miller, whose stories of an impoverished childhood echoed the economic themes of the nominee, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The 1996 Republican National Convention was keynoted by U.S. Representative Susan Molinari of New York, intended to reassure political moderates about the centrism of the nominee, former Senator Bob Dole.

The final day of the convention usually features the formal acceptance speeches from the nominees for President and Vice President. Despite the recent controversy, the acceptance speech has always been televised by the networks, because it receives the highest ratings of the convention.


History

In the early 19th century, members of Congress met within their party caucuses to select their party's nominee. Conflicts between the interests of the Eastern Congressional class and citizens in newer Western states led to the hotly contested 1824 election, in which factions of the Democratic-Republican Party rejected the caucus nominee, William H. Crawford of Georgia, and backed John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson instead.

In 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party convened in Baltimore, Maryland to select a single presidential candidate agreeable to the whole party leadership in the 1832 presidential election. The Democratic Party and Whig Party soon followed suit.

Conventions were often heated affairs, playing a vital role in deciding who would be the nominee. The process remained far from democratic or transparent, however. The party convention was a scene of intrigue among political bosses, who appointed and otherwise controlled nearly all of the delegates. Winning a nomination involved intensive negotiations and multiple votes; the 1924 Democratic National Convention required a record 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. The term dark horse candidate was coined at the 1920 Republican National Convention, at which little-known Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding emerged as the candidate.

A few, mostly Western states adopted primary elections in the late 19th century and during the Progressive Era, but the catalyst for its widespread adoption came during the the election of 1968. The Vietnam War energized a large number of supporters of anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, but they had no say in the matter. Vice President Hubert Humphrey—associated with the unpopular administration of Lyndon B. Johnson—did not compete in a single primary, yet controlled enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination. This proved one of several factors behind rioting which broke out at the convention in Chicago.

Media images of the event—angry mobs facing down police—damaged the image of the Democratic Party, which appointed a commission headed by George McGovern to select a new, less controversial method of choosing nominees. The commission settled on the primary election, adopted by the Democratic National Committee in 1968. The Republicans adopted the primary as their preferred method in 1972. Henceforth, candidates would be given convention delegates based on their performance in primaries, and these delegates were bound to vote for their candidate.

As a result, the presidential nominating convention has lost almost all of its old drama. The last attempt to release delegates from their candidates came in 1980, when Senator Ted Kennedy sought the votes of delegates held by incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. The last major party convention whose outcome was in doubt was the 1976 Republican National Convention, when former California Governor Ronald Reagan near won the nomination away from the incumbent, Gerald Ford.


Televising controversy

While rank and file members had no input in early nominations, they were still drawn by the aura of mystery surrounding the convention, and networks began to broadcast speeches and debates to the general public. NBC affiliate W2XBS in New York City made the first telecast of a national party convention, of the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

With the rise of the direct primary, and in particular with the "front-loading" of the primary calendar since the 1988 election, the nominee has often secured a commanding majority of delegates far in advance of the convention. As such, the convention has become little more than a coronation, a carefully staged campaign event designed to draw public attention and favor to the nominee, with particular attention to television coverage. For instance, speeches by noted and popular party figures are scheduled for the coveted prime time hours, when most people would be watching.

As the drama has left the conventions, and complaints grown that they were scripted and dull pep rallies, viewership—and television network advertising revenue—have fallen off. The networks have increasingly limited their coverage, arguing that those interested can watch the proceedings on a cable network. Critics, however, accuse them of shirking their civic duty.


References

  • Chase, James S. Emergence of the Presidential Nominating Convention, 1789-1832 (Houghton Mifflin: 1973).
  • Congressional Research Service. Presidential Elections in the United States: A Primer. (Washington, Congressional Research Service, April 17, 2000).
  • History House: Conventional Wisdom (http://www.historyhouse.com/uts/party_conventions/)
  • Online NewsHour: Interview with Historian Michael Beschloss (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/convention96/retro/beschloss_history.html) on the origins of the convention process
  • Republican National Convention 2004: Convention History (http://www.2004nycgop.org/2004nycgop_contents/convention_info/history_con.shtml)
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