With the advent of television and the widespread adoption of primaries, the national parties' nominating conventions have largely been reduced from decision-making bodies to a rubber stamp function.  The conventions are, in fact, tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.   Nonetheless, these quadrennial gatherings still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee.

Xcel Energy Center
September 1-4, 2008

Pepsi Center
August 25-28, 2008

The Changing Character of Conventions
In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee.  For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee.  The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention went to a third ballot before New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades.  First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings. Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences.

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties.  Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewership, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.

The conventions may have been reduced to rubber stamps, but they still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties.  In many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor.  In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests aligned with the party a forum to present their concerns.  During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall.  At the end of the convention, party activists return to their communities energized for the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a convention bounce.

Interestingly, after their lengthy site selection processes both parties opted for conventions in middle America.  Democrats met August 25-28 in Denver and Republicans gathered September 1-4 in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Both parties had to work around the 2008 Olympic Games, held in Beijing from August 8-24.  In addition to being relatively late, the two conventions were very close together: Democrats wrapped up on Thursday August 28 and Republicans started on Monday September 1.  This posed a challenge for journalists.

The major party conventions are funded by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off), by non-partisan, non-profit host committees, and to a lesser degree by local taxpayers.  For their 2008 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $16.4 million.  On June 16, 2007 the FEC certified the Democratic and Republican parties were each entitled to receive $16,356,000 in public funds to put on their 2008 national conventions, and sent letters to the Secretary of the Treasury requesting the payments be made.  [press release]  (These grants, set out in the Federal Election Campaign Act, started at $2.2 million back in 1976 and were increased a couple of times in addition to being adjusted for cost-of-living increases). 

Host committees fulfill a range of functions.  [11 CFR 9008.52].  Early on they promote the city's bid.  If the city is successful, the host committee sets to work raising money and in-kind contributions, recruiting volunteers and organizing events and activities to welcome delegates and media.  Corporate contributions to host committees and "municipal funds" have comprised an increasing share of spending on conventions, leading for some to call for stricter regulations.  [Campaign Finance Institute report]. The Campaign Finance Institute argues that "past policies of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) on 'host committee' fundraising are seriously outmoded.  In 2004, these policies together facilitated a $142 million loophole for soft money contributions to party-produced extravaganzas."  In June 2005 CFI sent a letter to the IRS urging an end to the tax loophole for soft money contributions to convention host committees. [press release]  Through to the end of 2008 the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee reported total receipts of $62.9 million and total disbursements of $58.9 million; the Minneapolis Saint Paul 2008 Host Committee reported total receipts of $65.3 million and total disbursements of 59.8 million. [FEC: Denver, Minneapolis Saint Paul]

Party Platforms
The platform outlines the party's philosophy and priorities.  Truth be told, party platforms are not widely read documents, but the process of writing a platform affords the party the opportunity to publicly seek input from its various constituencies.  During platform discussions some points of contention do arise, such as the Republican Party's quadrennial battle over its abortion plank, but generally any major dissension is ironed out before the platform reaches the convention.

Denver vs. Minneapolis
Democrats achieved a major logistical feat by holding the first three days of their Convention at Pepsi Center and then moving the whole operation to INVESCO Field for the final night. 
Going to a venue that can seat more than 75,000 people was a risk and it paid off, although the neoclassical set and Greek columns of the set prompted some ribbing.  The Twin Cities was somewhat more difficult as a convention site in that Minneapolis and St. Paul are actually about ten miles apart.  The Republican National Convention got off to a very slow start when the planned program for the first day was cancelled due to Hurricane Gustav.  However, the tempo picked up as the Convention progressed; Gov. Sarah Palin's speech in particular electrified the crowd.  Both conventions emphasized green efforts, although the Democrats' green activities were far more rigorous.


Conventions have long attracted an assortment of demonstrators.  One need only recall Chicago in 1968.  In 2000 coordinated mobilizations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the conventions drew thousands of activists advocating a range of progressive issues; these necessitated major police presences.  Shadow Conventions were also held in the two cities.  In 2004 demonstrators did not have much of an impact in Boston, but activists opposed to Bush held sizable protests in New York.  While specially designated protest areas near the conventions halls provide a venue for various groups to make their points, most of the action is on the streets.  In 2008 Denver saw a range of relatively low-key demonstrations, while the protests in Minneapolis-St. Paul did lead to hundreds of arrests.  The peace group Code Pink actually managed to get a few protesters inside the Xcel Center.  Recent conventions of the major parties have been designated as National Special Security Events, meaning that the Secret Service takes the lead role in assuring the safety and security of convention-goers.

Economic Impact
Despite the infrastructure demands and security challenges, hosting a convention can provide a substantial economic boost to a city.  The city and County of Denver reporter an economic benefit of $153.9 million, and a regional economic impact of $266.1 million.  [report-PDF] The Minneapolis Saint Paul host committee reported the 2008 Republican National Convention "generated nearly $170 million in new money for the local economy."  [press release]

Third Party Conventions
While the big networks have been giving less coverage to major party conventions in recent years, they generally have ignored third party conventions altogether.  Fortunately C-SPAN does cover these gatherings, as they provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Sites of Recent Major Party Conventions

2008 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN Sept. 1-4 Denver, CO  Aug. 25-28
2004 New York, NY  Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Boston, MA  July 26-29
2000 Philadelphia, PA  July 31-Aug. 3 Los Angeles, CA  Aug. 14-17
1996 San Diego, CA  Aug 12-15 Chicago, IL  Aug. 26-29
1992 Houston, TX  Aug. 17-20 New York, NY  July 13-16
1988 New Orleans, LA  Aug. 15-18 Atlanta, GA  July 18-21
1984 Dallas, TX San Francisco, CA
1980 Detroit, MI New York, NY
1976 Kansas City, MO New York, NY
1972 Miami Beach, FL Miami Beach, FL
1968 Miami Beach, FL Chicago, IL
1964 San Francisco, CA Atlantic City, NJ
1960 Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

-The greening of conventions started up with the 2004 national conventions in Boston and New York where a Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Conventions sought to "promote environmental best practices for large conventions."  

-In January 2007 Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) introduced the "Political Convention Reform Act of 2007" (H.R. 72), a bill "To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to prohibit the use of public funds for political party conventions.  This legislation appears unlikely to move, but it does show a different viewpoint.



Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action