Party conventions: Important events or empty pageantry?

·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the 2020 presidential race, leaving Democrats and Republicans in unprecedented territory, especially for their massive political conventions.

Usually attended in person by thousands, both the Democratic and Republican national conventions are set to be mostly virtual this year due to the coronavirus. As a result, television networks scaled down coverage plans and planning committees have tamped down the pomp and circumstance of the affairs. Instead of giant balloon drops, there will be prerecorded videos of political stars. Long days of back-to-back events will be traded for a few hours of programming per night.

Historically, political conventions have served as the means of important decision making. Delegates vote for a presidential nominee, sometimes in several rounds, and approve the party’s official platform. However, there hasn’t been a convention with several rounds of voting in decades, as candidates are now known by the end of primary season. Though there is also the possibility of a contested or brokered convention, there hasn’t been one in recent history. As the pandemic forces political conventions to adapt and go virtual, some wonder if the changes to the usually crowded, chaotic gatherings will become permanent.

Why there’s debate

Convention critics say that it’s time to end them for good. While once useful, the modern political convention is nothing more than a PR event, they argue. There’s no longer any substance — rather, it’s a series of overly scripted made-for-television moments with rehearsed sound bites and celebrity appearances, they say. In recent years, a party’s candidate and platform are selected prior to the actual event. Plus, the conventions are expensive, they say.

But those who support the conventions disagree, arguing that huge events can shape and motivate political parties. Conventions provide the opportunity to fundraise, network, broker backroom deals and form political alliances. They also help launch stars, like Barack Obama in 2004 and Ronald Reagan in 1964. And when politicians and campaign staffers return home, they bring with them an excitement and fire to push through the final stretch of the race.

There’s also a group who say that conventions should remain, but argue that their format should change. Rather than a multiday affair, the convention should focus on connecting a party with new American voters. Conventions should increase their focus on local races and inform voters about how to participate in the upcoming election, they say.

What’s next

The upcoming political conventions will be shorter than usual and mostly virtual — and neither candidate will travel to accept the nomination in person. The Democratic National Convention will be Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, and the Republican National Convention will be Aug. 24 to Aug. 27.


End the political convention

“They are gaudy, week-long infomercials, funded by lobbyists, offering but a few moments that can hold a decent-sized television audience. Taxpayers of the cities that host them are usually left holding a big bill.” — Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

Today’s political conventions are for PR, not picking nominees

“Once begun as places to make deals and deliberate on possible candidates and positions, today’s conventions are public relations events, stressing the character, issues and strong party support for the party’s presidential ticket.” — Barbara Norrander, Conversation

A convention can unify its party and inspire voters

“They give the party a chance to spell out its policy priorities, formulate a message for the coming campaign and change the minds of voters. These events also offer a stage for those with the capacity to inspire. Without the 2004 Democratic convention, where he gave an unforgettable keynote address, Barack Obama might be just another senator.” — Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune

Conventions provide the opportunity to brainstorm and fundraise

“The real work done there isn’t conducted on the convention floor. ... Causal get-togethers are where ideas are exchanged, where information about new ways to reach and affect voters is passed along, and where knowledge is transferred. They’re where alliances are formed, not just at the national level but often also for gubernatorial and congressional contests as well. They’re where contacts are made that can lead to new fundraising resources, emerging political talent is discovered, and yes, where deals are even sometimes struck. ... The convention is a key ingredient in keeping a political party strong.” — J. Mark Powell, Bucks County Courier Times

Politicians and staffers leave conventions feeling reinvigorated

“The real cost of a canceled convention [is] the deprivation of the chance to build that momentum that comes from a convention. You leave the convention fired up and pumped up because you can have three or four nights of cheerleading and rallying and cohesiveness and connectivity and a passion and the excitement builds and it’s like a rocket.” — Moe Vela to Business Insider

Hold a convention, but only if there’s no clear nominee

“In the future, conventions should be held only if the nomination is still in question and delegates have to break an impasse. If the nominee is set and has more than enough delegates to be nominated, and his opponents have conceded, the nomination could be formalized by delegates meeting virtually, or even voting by paper ballot.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pandemic changes to political conventions will improve them

“Pageantry and celebrities have their place. Who doesn’t love a good balloon drop? But this year, the entire nation is under enormous strain. Americans want to know that the presidential contenders understand and care about their problems — and, more than that, that they are focused intently on how to solve those problems.” — Editorial, New York Times

Parties need to connect with a new generation of voters

“In recent decades, they’ve become just TV productions. Actual decisions are made by voters in primaries. The parties need to find a way to reach out to a new generation and to reengage those disheartened by politics as usual.” — Editorial, Boston Globe

Make conventions smaller and more informative, with a focus on local races

“Conventions should reflect a voter’s full ballot, not just the top. The pandemic made painfully clear the importance of who serves as mayor, governor, state legislators and members of Congress. Instead of speeches by party stalwarts, propagandists pandering to the political fringes, or a celebrity talking to a chair, air time the night before the presidential candidate’s address should shift to local stations so voters can hear the speeches, promises and platforms of down-ballot candidates, staged locally in front of their own potential voters.” — Erin Geiger Smith, InsideSources

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images